- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

The key to Tennessee’s season is sitting right in the Volunteers’ pocket.

Tennessee junior quarterback Erik Ainge will carry the weight of the state on his shoulders this afternoon when he takes the field against No. 9 California at Neyland Stadium. Ainge and coach Phil Fulmer endured a storm of criticism during last season’s 5-6 debacle, the program’s first losing season since 1988.

Fulmer responded to his first losing season in 14 years on Rocky Top with the requisite face-saving staff changes — most notably replacing maligned offensive coordinator Randy Sanders with former Vols assistant and noted quarterback guru David Cutcliffe.

With the rest of the team seemingly primed to return the program to its typically lofty standards, Ainge represents the team’s primary 2006 question mark.

“I think we’re all anxious to see what strides our offense has made in the offseason,” Fulmer said. “Erik has certainly taken some positive steps in practice and scrimmages, but the proof in this game is all about the Saturday pudding.”

That’s not exactly a no-pressure endorsement from the Vols’ boss, but Fulmer is in no mood for word-mincing diplomacy these days.

Fulmer’s first 13 years at the helm in Knoxville yielded 123 victories (9.5 a season), six division titles, two SEC titles, a national title (1998) and 13 bowl appearances. But the 2005 season was an unremitting nightmare. The program lost a handful of players to disciplinary issues before the season started, setting a dubious tone for a team which opened 2005 ranked third in the nation.

Ainge had a promising debut in 2004, earning the starter job by completing 109 of 198 passes (55.1 percent) for 1,452 yards en route to breaking Peyton Manning’s freshman record for touchdown passes (17). But he sputtered in last season’s opener against Alabama-Birmingham and then suffered the two worst outings of his career in back-to-back weeks at Florida and LSU.

When senior Rick Clausen came off the bench to clean up Ainge’s mess and lead the Vols to a comeback victory at LSU, a nasty quarterback controversy ensued. Sanders and Fulmer initially dubbed Clausen the team’s permanent starter. But after back-to-back close losses to Georgia and Alabama dropped the Vols to 3-3, Fulmer handed the ball back to Ainge. The players responded by questioning the fairness and prudence of the coaching staff and rallied around the more vocal Clausen. The stress-addled Ainge, not the choice to lead among his own teammates, predictably stumbled down the stretch as the divided team unraveled.

Ainge finished the season 66 of 145 (45.5 percent) passing for a mere 737 yards and five touchdowns. The defining sight of the Tennessee season came after the team’s first loss to Vanderbilt in 23 years guaranteed a losing season and snapped the team’s bowl streak. To the horror of the 104,000-plus in attendance at the game, a dozen players conducted a silent protest of the coaching staff by leaving their helmets behind on the turf at Neyland Stadium.

Fulmer felt compelled to purge his offensive staff in an attempt to regain institutional control and respect. Nine months and reams of criticism later, Fulmer and Co. can take the first step toward redemption today.

“It’s been a long, long offseason; the longest of my career,” Fulmer said earlier this week. “It literally seemed like this game would never get here.”

Redemption has certainly come with far easier first steps than a Cal team returning one of the nation’s top rushers (Marshawn Lynch) and the Pac-10’s best defense. But Fulmer conducted the most physical fall camp of his tenure over the last month, stripping Ainge and his receivers of their no-contact jerseys in an attempt to toughen up his offense and prepare the happy-footed Ainge for today’s onslaught.

The 23rd-ranked Vols once again have a superb defense, a solid offensive line and a proven tailback in Arian Foster. The receiving corps is stacked with blue-chip experience. Ainge, who has a live arm and excellent tools, performed beautifully in the team’s last major scrimmage, looking more like the freshman phenom than the sophomore stinker. Today the college football world will find out if last season permanently scarred Ainge’s psyche, or if “Danny’s nephew” has become a man capable of returning the pride to Rocky Top.

“It doesn’t matter how good you look in practice, you’ve got to get out there and get it done between the lines on Saturday,” Cutcliffe said. “I think that’s the situation Erik is in. He needs to get out there and prove to himself and everybody else that he can do it again to get his confidence back. I think a little confidence is the only thing standing between Erik and a very good season.”

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