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Ainge, Jets Set Out to Build an Even Better QB


CB Dwight Lowery explodes from the starting blocks.

Erik Ainge certainly looks — and sounds — the part.

In his first interviews in the Jets' locker room, with a mob of TV cameras and microphones surrounding him, the fifth-round pick of the Green & White is asked a question that he doesn't have a quarterback's ready answer for.

Does he do a Ralph Kramden and go "hominahominahomina"?

Does he launch into Norm Crosby doubletalk?

No, he hits the restart button.

"Repeat the question for me," he asks politely, professionally.

On the field the former four-year starter for the University of Tennessee might look a little thin at 221 pounds for his impressive 6'5" frame, but he moves well and throws accurate short- and intermediate-range throws to QBs coach Brian Daboll or first-year veteran Brett Ratliff when reporters are watching, and to first-round TE Dustin Keller and sixth-round WR Marcus Henry among others when the media are gone.

"It's not necessarily how hard you can throw the football," said Ainge, who perhaps doesn't possess a Joe Flacco bazooka but whose right shoulder is strong enough. ""I've got plenty of arm strength, but I don't think that's going to be the determining factor in whether I end up a good pro or not, I just don't. Some guys who have great arms aren't good pros. Some guys don't and are some of the best quarterbacks who ever played."

Another good answer.

In this hypercritical time, it's easy for fans and talking heads to natter on about how strong an arm or how prone to injury or how many big games lost. But there's no reason Ainge can't develop into a fine pro. He's got the size. He had the experience — 43 games, 35 starts from 2004-07 for the Volunteers of the SEC — and the numbers — 60.6 percent accuracy, 72 TDs to 35 INTs, 25-10 mark as the Vols' "pitcher of record."

He has the family tree. As Erik says, uncle Danny Ainge of NBA fame told him "he was really excited that I could come here to this atmosphere, this team and this coaching staff."

At the top of that coaching staff, head coach Eric Mangini said today there are many things to like after three rookie minicamp practices.

"I've liked the things Erik's done in the classroom," Mangini said. "He's gotten quite a bit of information. With Brett [Ratliff] here, we can move a little bit quicker, and we have. That's been good for Erik as well, to see Brett and to have that other, more experienced quarterback in the room. But he's held his own, and he's done a nice job there.

"I think he's done a good job in the huddle in terms of getting guys not just the play but lined up, and going through his read progressions — and there are a lot."

And Ainge isn't exactly in the catbird seat since he's got the Brian Brothers — coordinator Schottenheimer and QBs coach Daboll — riding herd on him.

"They're very demanding," Mangini said. "not just in terms of scheme but in terms of technique and fundamentals and things like that. They're two of the most detailed guys I know. To sit in the room with those two guys, it's not easy."

Like a humble quarterback and Southern gentleman, Ainge insists he needs the coaching and deflects comparisons to Peyton Manning, a predecessor at the Vols controls, and Tom Brady, who grew from a Round 6 draftee into Super Tom.

"There's probably 15 things I need to do to get better, but they can't give me 15 in one practice," he said. "They'll give me A, B and C and say, 'All right, start with this and we're going to work on this and this.' If you just get those two or three things better, then you're making progress and you're getting better. And I can tell after one practice that they're very, very good at that.

"Honestly, the last thing I'm thinking about is a 14-year career and making 100 million. I'm concerning myself with practice in 45 minutes, and I'd be lying if I said I was thinking about anything but that. I'm going to go up there and let them tear me up real quick and tell me what I need to get better at."

What, he was asked, might A, B and C be for him to work on at his next Jets practice?

"I thinking continuing to get better with footwork — very specific footwork. Where to go with the football, just making reads. And I think just getting in better shape. This isn't college football. This is the NFL. Getting in better shape and learning the offense ... you could name it, I need to get better at it."

Besides being brutally honest with himself, Ainge appears to have one more trait that will help him in his new endeavor: thick skin. It's early in his exposure to the New York market, but Knoxville isn't exactly Chadron, Neb. (sorry, Danny Woodhead and all you CSC Eagles fans), when it comes to media hype. He's handled himself well so far, especially when it comes to Jets reporters asking him about all the critics who deconstructed his game in the months before last weekend's draft.

"Nobody's perfect," he said without rancor. "Even the big guys who play forever aren't perfect. It's not a perfect game."

But however Ainge's career turns out, he's a perfectly good candidate to come in and give the NFL wheel of fortune a spin.

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