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Erik Ainge: The Education of a Rookie QB


QB Erik Ainge

If you pick up Athlon Sports' annual college football preview and turn to the Tennessee team page, you'll get an idea how much Southeastern Conference opponents respected Vols QB Erik Ainge.

"I don't know enough about Jonathan Crompton, but he will have a hard time playing as well as [Erik] Ainge did," said an unnamed opposing SEC assistant coach. "Ainge was remarkable last year."

The numbers tell part of the story for Ainge, the Jets' fifth-round selection in the 2008 draft. He completed 62.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,522 yards and 31 TDs against only 10 INTs. Ainge, who showcased his mental prowess and cool temperament while running the two-minute offensive, credits David Cutcliffe, his former Tennessee offensive coordinator and now Duke's head coach, for his guidance.

"'He didn't say, 'When you throw the ball to the left, you need to open your hips a little bit,' " Ainge said. "He just said, 'Be a football player first and everything else will take care of itself. Be the toughest guy on the field, be the smartest guy on the field, know where to go with the football, know how to get yourself protected and just play ball. You have a God-given ability to throw the ball accurately and that's what a quarterback has to do.'

"And he kind of taught me the other things and how they all run together."

The Volunteers threw the ball 534 times last year and their offensive line yielded a nation-low four sacks. It was an impressive unit, but Ainge, a 6'5", 221-pounder with average mobility, had tremendous pocket presence.

A month before the Jets open their 2008 training camp, Ainge hasn't taken many reps yet for the Green & White. He threw a little in rookie camp, but then had a procedure completed on his hand and was limited during OTAs and minicamp.

"He's not doing any of the physical elements. It's more mental with him. He was impressive this morning in the meeting," said head coach Eric Mangini in the spring. "He had to name every single person in the room. It was close to 100 people. He nailed them."

For the second time in three seasons, Mangini will hold a QB competition at summer camp. But Ainge will bide his time because unless something slightly miraculous occurs, either Kellen Clemens or Chad Pennington will start on opening day. Ainge, a multisport start at Glencoe High School in Hillsboro, Ore., has known Clemens, an Oregon University standout, and Pennington, a Knoxville, Tenn., native, for some time.

"It's very competitive but it's very respectful. We have fun." Ainge says. "It's not stiff, it's not like we're in there just watching film and then no one is talking at practice."

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and QB coach Brian Daboll encourage competition everywhere. If they direct a question at one of the signalcallers and he doesn't answer immediately, the next man will get a shot to earn some points.

"Sometimes we'll do the two-minute drill on the board and we'll get magnets out and keep track. It will be first-and-10 on the 45 and you've got one timeout. Now what's the play?" Ainge said. "You have to call the play and run the clock and Daboll's throwing a tennis ball at you. He'll pretend that you got sacked — calling out 'strip-sack' — while hitting you on the head with a tennis ball. We have a lot of fun and they do a good job of making hard work fun."

Ainge is taking the right approach, viewing his rookie campaign as an opportunity to learn without being "the guy." But make no mistake — this kid isn't looking at the sideline as something permanent. He's an outdoorsman who exudes confidence and you can view his leadership traits when he's around members of the Jets' '08 rookie class. Ainge lives to sling the rock and he's looking forward to doing as much as he can come July and August.

"There is no substitute for live reps. You can watch as much film as you want, you can get as many mental reps in practice as you want — and that's obviously huge, it's going to help you," he said. "But if you don't do the physical reps, you're always a step behind."

Former Jets QB Boomer Esiason, a top analyst on CBS, says the game is more complicated than ever for young passers because of all the substitution packages.

"There isn't just one pass protection for a quarterback to learn," Esiason said. "He probably has like 25 pass protections to learn and he has to learn how all those pass protections correspond with the personnel groups that he has in the huddle with him.

"Then he has to be able to digest whether or not everyone is blocked if the defense blitzes. If the defense does blitz and not everyone is blocked, then he has to know who the hot read is and he has to know where that hot read is — to the right or to the left. There is a lot of thinking that goes on here and that's why it's just not that easy."

According to Esiason, Ainge is going to have to wait a couple of seasons to make NFL waves.

"A guy like Eric Ainge, in my estimation, no matter how physically gifted he is, is a good solid two years away from even remotely having a positive impact on this football team," Esiason said.

But Ainge isn't looking long-term. He's thinking short-term, trying to achieve as much as possible each day.

"I'm not even thinking about the end of training camp or the season — I'm focused on our work out tomorrow," he says. "I'm going to make sure I do extra. I'm going to be the first one there and the last one to leave."

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