Well, what can be said about the quarterbacks that hasn’t already been said? Very little, but I’m going to mix up the order of the words to make it look brand spanking new.
Erik Ainge drew favorable comparisons to Peyton Manning his freshman year, and for good reason. He completed 109 of 198 passes for 1,452 yards and 17 touchdowns in nine games before a shoulder injury against Notre Dame ended his season. The following year, he got off to a good start, but morphed into a mushroom cloud in the end zone at LSU. The question then became Is There Life After Death Valley for Erik Ainge? By the Notre Dame game, the early returns suggested, well, maybe not.
Enter Ahead-to-the-Past offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, sensei to the likes of No. 1 NFL draft picks Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, No. 3 NFL draft pick Heath Shuler, and National Championship QB Tee Martin. Job One for Cut is the Reanimation of Erik Ainge Project.
The jury is still out after the first all-live scrimmage, during which Ainge went 13 of 26 for 120 yards, with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Worse than the raw numbers, Ainge displayed some of the same pocket panic that we saw last year, even throwing a sure interception (it was actually dropped by the defender) off his back foot from his own end zone. Cut was “surprised,” and said such a play was unacceptable.
He did not, however, water the blooming controversy. “We are not shaking up or changing anything at this stage based on one scrimmage,” said Cutcliffe. “I evaluate every one of them every day. I grade every practice. They are all held accountable to perform.”
Cutcliffe didn’t, however, completely rule out the possibility of a change. “We are going to keep competition at all positions, including quarterback,” said Cutcliffe. “[Ainge] has to play better than he played from a mistake standpoint. I am sure he is disappointed. He is doing many things well.”
The offensive coaching staff is doing its best to both develop 2nd string QB Jonathan Crompton, a Parade All-American, and ignore the fact that he is nipping at Ainge’s heels. Crompton finished Saturday’s scrimmage 7 of 13 for 97 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. According to Cutcliffe, Crompton is “transferring what I’m telling him and verbalizing it in the huddle and not getting frozen.”
Junior Bo Hardegree is nipping at Ainge’s other heel, and waiting in the wings is true freshman Nick Stephens, who passed for 2,602 yards and 24 touchdowns as a high school senior at Flower Mound, Texas last year.
Best Case Scenario: Erik Ainge improves decision-making under duress and efficiently manages the offense, occasionally hitting big-time, long-distance pass plays, and racking up big early leads that enable Crompton to get healthy portions of game experience.
Worst Case Scenario: Ainge barely holds on to the starting position, hording all of the first string practice reps, through the first game against Cal where he throws an interception from his own end zone for a touchdown while in the arms of a defender and gets yanked for good. Crompton, thrown into the fire without the benefit of any real practice reps struggles and thereafter splits time equally under center with Bo Hardegree, Nick Stephens, Jim Bob Cooter, and defensive tackle Justin Harrell. Tennessee finishes 6-6 or worse, and the University decides to hire Bob Stoops, who brings Rhett Bomar with him.
Best Guess: Cutcliffe will in fact reanimate Ainge and cure him of his poor decision-making under duress by having Ainge take the snap, count to three, and heave the ball into the Tennessee River on thirty consecutive plays (or something like that) to substitute a new panic mechanism for the old one. Ainge will struggle early, fans will holler for Crompton, and Cutcliffe will wisely guide Ainge through the firestorm, molding him into an efficient QB whose game plan consists primarily of handing off to the tailback and throwing short passes.