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Reunion has fixed Vols' offense
David Cutcliffe has Tennessee thriving again entering Saturday's big game against Florida.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published September 12, 2006
GAINESVILLE - Sometimes you can go home again. And once in a while, things work out very well the second time around.
That's what Tennessee assistant head coach and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe is discovering in Knoxville this fall. After seven years away from the program, the man who made Peyton and Eli Manning stars has brought new life to the Vols offense, particularly junior quarterback Erik Ainge.
"I think David has been very good for Erik in that he is very demanding of him from a discipline standpoint, from a ball-security standpoint, playing within the system, allowing the system to help him," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
"David is a guy who is going to cross his t's and dot his i's and make sure everything is in the proper order of progression for a quarterback. He'll do a good job of playing to his strengths and trying to minimize his weaknesses."
In eight games last season, Ainge (who split time with the now-departed Rick Clausen) was 66-of-145 (45.5 percent) for 737 yards, seven interceptions and five touchdowns. His passing efficiency rating dropped from 135.9 in his freshman season to 89.9 last season.
But Saturday against Air Force, he set a career high for passing yards for the second time in as many games, 333 yards in a 31-30 win. Ainge, who threw for 291 in the opener, is No. 1 in the nation among Division I quarterbacks with a 226.63 passing efficiency rating.
"If he told me to play without a helmet or a mouthpiece, with one cleat, I'd do it," Ainge said of Cutcliffe recently. "I think we've all bought in as an offense."
Cutcliffe, who turns 52 on Saturday when the Vols host Florida, spent 1993-98 as Tennessee's offensive coordinator. During that span, the Vols twice led the SEC in total offense and three times were its top rushing team.
That convinced Mississippi to hire him as coach.
After he was fired in 2004, he became the quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame. But he resigned after triple bypass surgery. He was appearing on a local radio show in Knoxville in November when the call from Fulmer, his longtime friend, came. Then-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders resigned under pressure in midseason.
"I never saw this opportunity presenting itself, but when it did, that certainly made me reconsider things," Cutcliffe said. "I love the University of Tennessee. I just looked at it as a wonderful opportunity."
It has been good for the Vols as well. Tennessee opened with a 35-18 win over then-No. 9 Cal. Along with Ainge's emergence, Robert Meachem ranks second in the nation at 148.5 receiving yards per game.
In all, the Vols are prospering after last season's 5-6 record.
They were ninth in passing offense and 10th in scoring offense in the SEC last season but now are second and tied for fifth, respectively.
"David Cutcliffe will have more of an impact on the other 10 people (on offense)," CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. "He will have the quarterback. Tennessee was sloppy in every phase, and this guy is a taskmaster.
"He's a Southern gentleman, but on the field, you do it his way, and you do it repetitively. It's kind of the unknown quantity that he's bringing to Tennessee."