It’s The Question.
It was the question two years ago after former Tennessee Volunteer quarterback Casey Clausen had exhausted his eligibility. Who would replace Clausen? Sixth-year senior C.J. Leak? Or one of the dazzling freshman, Erik Ainge or Brent Schaeffer? And what exactly was Rick Clausen thinking? Did he really expect to play?
We know how that turned out. Sort of. Ainge and Schaeffer were named “co-starters,” with Schaeffer actually taking the first snap, and the two of them handling the rotation fairly well. Leak switched positions and then barely played. Then Schaeffer was injured against South Carolina, and Ainge was injured against Notre Dame. Behold, Rick Clausen, who saved the season.
It was also the question last year. All of last year. Who would lead the team, Clausen or Ainge?
We know how that turned out as well. Let’s call it . . . um . . . “not good.”
It’s still the question two full years later. Who’s our quarterback? Is there Life after Death Valley for Erik Ainge? Will the promising young Jonathan Crompton overtake Ainge? Will Ahead-to-the-Past offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe work his Manning/Shuler/Martin mojo on either of them?
The Question. Who’s our quarterback?
And while we don’t have The Answer, there are some little “a” answers.
Ainge’s mistakes last year were on display for the Big Orange Nation, but his biggest mistake did not come to light until this past week.
We didn’t learn until after the last snap that Ainge had turf toe much of last season. And while it was apparent that he did not have a solid grasp of what was happening last year, he admitted neither his toe injury nor his confusion to the coaches.
The coaching staff tried to hand the entire playbook to Ainge and let him run with it, but Ainge simply did not understand it all. Said Ainge, “I could tell watching myself that I was confused. I was dropping back and I was confused. Not confused on what route guys were running, but trying to be too precise and too perfect.”
His biggest mistake? Not telling the coaches. So why did he keep it all to himself?
There was a quarterback contest going on. “I felt I had to try and keep pace,” Ainge said. “It would be one thing if I was the guy or the starter and I said this was too much and we need to make it more simple. That would be one thing. But when the whole offense is doing something and there is a quarterback who can handle it, for me to say we need to tone the whole offense down and back down a notch, that is tough. Looking back should I have said some, yeah, but you never know if that would have meant that I would have never played at all. I think it kind of depends on the position of the quarterback. If you are “the” guy then you can say, hey I don’t like that or I want to do more of that. You are kind of like a coach in that setting.”
Well, now that they know, what are they doing about it?
They’re keeping it simple. They’re working on fundamentals. Cutcliffe is breaking Ainge down and re-coaching his mechanics. He’s teaching him to listen. He is explaining why defenses are doing what they are doing rather than just teaching recognition of alignments. Players will not have options. For example, if wide receivers are to run a route, they are to run that route with precision regardless of the circumstances. Said Ainge, “I am going to get him running this route so good that you know he is going to be there.”
As coach Cutcliffe is re-coaching the fundamentals, he is rebuilding Ainge’s confidence. “The way you gain confidence is absolutely knowing you what to do with the ball every time the ball is snapped.”
So who’s the quarterback? Is there Life after Death Valley for Erik Ainge?
It’s too soon to tell, but Coach Cutcliffe’s Reanimation of Erik Ainge project is well underway. And there’s a live one on the shelf just in case.