Ainge listens and learns from Colts' Manning
|Erik Ange||- Download MP3-|
By Wes Rucker
TAMPA, Fla. -- Erik Ainge and Peyton Manning have had dozens of football conversations the past four years.
Ainge will never forget one of the first.
In 2004, Manning overheard Ainge -- then a lanky, laser-armed freshman -- explaining to a reporter what went wrong on a particular interception.
Sitting in the Tampa Convention Center on Friday morning, Ainge laughed while recalling the talk he had with Manning moments later.
Manning's words were private, polite and persuasive.
"Every interception has a story," he said, according to Ainge. "Just say, 'I didn't have it tonight,' and move on."
Ainge listened and learned. Earlier this season, he refused to publicly blame the broken pinky on his throwing hand for any errant throws.
The pinky was obviously a hindrance. It was swollen to the size of his thumb and taped to his ring finger.
But he dismissed it.
And until Friday, he didn't even discuss the throwing shoulder injury he suffered in the season-opening loss at California.
Vols coach Phillip Fulmer unveiled the injury Thursday, calling it "the darn shoulder he had really for two-thirds of the season, at least."
Specifics on the injury still haven't surfaced, but Ainge said when it occurred. Surprisingly, it happened well after Zack Follett tattooed him to force the fumble Cal returned for a score on the game's first possession.
"I got hit by like three dudes, and I landed right on my shoulder," Ainge said. "It was fine, and I kept playing, but it's just one of those things that got sore and stayed sore.
"If it had been either one of (the injuries), it wouldn't have been a big deal. But with both of them at the same time, the few weeks after that was tough."
Senior tight end Chris Brown said Ainge's injuries "changed some things we had to do.
"And we lost two of our first three games because we didn't execute some of them at first," Brown said.
UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe also caved in Friday morning, changing the standard answer he's given all season to questions surrounding the Vols' lack of deep, vertical passes.
"He's much better now, but it's still not something we try to advertise," Cutcliffe said. "We weren't able to throw the ball down the field very effectively early, but we weren't going to tell our opponents that. He just managed it really well, and I just kind of managed his reps at practice.
"The last three weeks, he's thrown the ball better downfield than he has all year long."
Four weeks ago, Ainge threw two critical fourth-quarter interceptions that put the Vols behind and prevented them from coming back in a 21-14, SEC championship game loss to LSU.
The week before, Ainge threw an overtime interception at Kentucky that would have cost UT the SEC Eastern Division championship if not for Dan Williams' field goal block.
UT's coaches refused to blame Ainge either night, though.
"Erik is one of the reasons we got here," Fulmer said after the LSU game. "He has been outstanding."
While his defining moments will -- fairly or not -- be those two interceptions, Ainge was statistically similar this season despite throwing to a lesser-experienced (and probably less talented) group of wide receivers than 2006.
One year after throwing for 240.6 yards per game, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions primarily to Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith, Ainge threw for 240.2 yards per game, 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions primarily to Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe.
And he did it despite finger and shoulder injuries that Cutcliffe said "were real, and still are."
Ainge said UT's complex, no-huddle scheme was diverse enough to mask some of his physical limitations, and that the Vols "found different ways" to throw deep routes. On the rare occasion that Ainge let one fly -- like Lucas Taylor's 51-yard touchdown at Mississippi State -- it was usually a three-step drop followed by a fling that closely resembled a 60-degree lob wedge.
Ainge could put plenty of zip on short throws, but he had difficulties throwing deep balls down the sidelines and anytime he couldn't set his feet.
Cutcliffe said there was also concern about exacerbating the injuries.
"My instructions were ... making him dead-set on getting the ball out of his hands," Cutcliffe said. "I called the game that way.
"We just didn't throw the ball down the field near as much as we did before. You guys caught onto it, from what I could tell each week in the press conference that I had, so I was kind of surprised that more people didn't pay any more attention to it."
Wisconsin linebacker and leading tackler Jonathan Casillas said Friday that Ainge's injuries were "news to me."
"Really? To tell you the truth, I didn't even know he was banged up," Casillas said. "He's had a great career, and he had a great year.
"His arm looks like an NFL arm to me."
Oddly enough, though, Ainge's stats sunk as his health slightly improved -- except his SEC record-tying, four-overtime-aided, seven-touchdown tosses at Kentucky.
Still, he had 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions before the fourth quarter against LSU.
"It's human nature to want to make an excuse," Ainge said. "But, like Peyton says...I just didn't have a great game that night.' "
E-mail Wes Rucker at email@example.com