Flux capacitor: 8-14-06, Cutcliffe quells a quarterback controversy

One year ago today, ahead-to-the-past offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe squelched a potential quarterback controversy and may have saved a season:

Erik Ainge

The jury is still out [on the quarterbacks] 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."

Jonathan Crompton

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."

* * * *

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.

We ended up with an Almost Best Case Scenario, with Ainge in Orange in fact making excellent decisions and big plays right out of the gate in clobbering Cal. Had it not been for an ankle injury suffered against South Carolina, Ainge may have truly been something extraordinary. Crompton did get some game snaps due to large leads, but not nearly enough. Still, he showed real promise when thrust into action against LSU and Arkansas due to Ainge's injury.

The outlook for the 2007 season is essentially the same except that we have much more confidence in Ainge going into this year. Here's to many more big early leads and more garbage reps for Crompton.

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