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In Philly, Ainge's Turn Finally Comes to Pass


QB Erik Ainge

On the same day that Eric Mangini announced he's leaning toward not playing Brett Favre in the Jets' preseason finale, Erik Ainge was looking forward to getting his time in against the Eagles on Thursday night in Philadelphia.

"It's very exciting. You try not to get too excited about it," Ainge said late this morning. "I've played in a lot of big games before, so I'm not going to try to build that up in my mind too much.

"I'm just going to go out there and do what we do. I'm going to go out here and have a good practice today. We'll get to do some Philly prep at the end of practice and just take it one pass play at a time."

Ainge, who made a fourth-quarter cameo appearance Saturday against the Giants, will split time with Kellen Clemens and Brett Ratliff as the Jets conclude their summer slate.

"I know I'll get to play. I don't know how much, but I know I'm going to get the opportunity to play," he said.

After making three late handoffs at Cleveland and not participating against Washington, Ainge took five snaps against the Giants and they resulted in two handoffs to RB Jesse Chatman, two kneeldowns and one sack. The stat crew wasn't used to seeing Ainge out there and actually thought Big Blue DE Ogemdi Nwagbuo had taken down Brett Ratliff.

"We were running our four-minute offense and they called a pass play down the field," Ainge said. "In that situation, you don't want to throw the ball away because then the clock stops and we're trying to run the clock out. You just get what you can and take the sack in that situation."

For the most part, Ainge has been a spectator throughout the preseason. He didn't get a ton of reps in training camp (even though his snaps increased of late) and he's been on the sideline during games. Yet the rookie is anything but down.

"I feel like I can make progress just from observing from the sideline. Each game I feel like I've gotten a little better whether I've played or not," he said. "It sounds funny but that's a testament to the coaching, the sideline operation. Coach [Brian] Daboll and Coach [Noel] Mazzone on the sidelines are always kind of helping me out even though they know I'm not playing."

Sometime late on the night of Aug. 6, the Jets' quarterback picture got a dramatically different look when they acquired Favre from Green Bay. Ainge, 22, had always been a Favre fan and was excited that one of his favorite all-time players was coming on board.

"I can't try to do what he does in practice because physically what he can do with the football is amazing," Ainge said. "You don't go out there and try to emulate him, but you watch what he does, what he thinks, how he talks and how he carries himself. Without being a copycat, you can really learn a lot from him."

Ainge, a four-year starter at the University of Tennessee, joked today about an instance where one of his former Volunteers coaches actually thought Favre had become a bad influence on the college passer.

"Jim Bob Cooter, our graduate assistant, and me, before our bowl game, we were watching the Packers play and he was making unreal throws off his back foot," Ainge said with a smile. "Then early in the first quarter [of the bowl game], I made a couple of throws falling away and across my body and they were complete. We got back to the sideline and he was like 'Good job completing the passes. You're never watching Favre again before the game.' "

No stranger to big games or the spotlight, the 6'5", 221-pound Ainge played home games in front of 100,000 people. He passed for 3,522 yards and 31 TDs as a senior while leading the Vols to first place in the SEC East, and they came within a whisker of beating LSU, the eventual national champ, in the conference championship game.

Things haven't been easy for Ainge early in his pro career, with an injury to his throwing hand forcing him to miss most of the spring. After a long wait, he should throw his first NFL pass Thursday evening.

"Ready to roll," he said of his feelings. "I've been waiting patiently to get an opportunity to play and I'm just excited to have the opportunity. It's a privilege to play here — not a right. I'm going to try to make the most of my opportunity as long as it is and as many passes as it is."

The quarterback position is a most difficult task to master for any rookie. Even back in 1991, the Atlanta Falcons had a young gunslinger, a second-round pick from Southern Mississippi, who couldn't find his way to the field. Brett Favre attempted four passes that season — two of them were intercepted and zero were completed to his teammates.

Who knows what the future holds for Ainge? We do know he'll play Thursday and then continue to diligently work to become a better QB.

"If I get to play, I'll go play as good and as hard as I can. And if I don't, there is tons of film, weightlifting, practice," Ainge said. "There are so many things I can do to get better as a football player for when my time comes to make sure I'm ready as I possibly can be."

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