Ainge wants to improve as a quarterback with New York Jets

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Erik Ainge had numbers last season for the University of Tennessee that most college quarterbacks dream of.

In the weeks leading to the draft, though, the gaudy statistics weren't nearly enough. It seemed everyone was quick to point out everything Ainge couldn't do. That wasn't anything new, of course. Ainge heard for years that he was nothing like former Volunteers star Peyton Manning.

"I think it's like that for any sport, any position," Ainge said during the New York Jets' three-day rookie minicamp. "If there is a great shooting guard that goes to Chicago, they're going to compare him to Jordan, and that's a tough comparison for anybody. There won't ever be another Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning. Everybody's different and unique. It's a matter of finding out what your niche is and what you're good at and just working really hard to keep getting busy."

The Jets saw enough positives to make Ainge a fifth-round pick, the ninth quarterback selected in the draft.

It surprised some, including New York, that Ainge lasted that long. After all, he threw for 3,522 yards, 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions last season, all while playing with a broken pinkie on his throwing hand. He also ranks third in school history behind Manning and Casey Clausen with 8,700 yards passing.

"We're really excited to see what he could do," general manager Mike Tannenbaum said after the draft. "He's a tremendous worker, he has good size and can make all the throws. We thought the value in the fifth round was excellent, so we were happy to get him."

Scouts liked his 6-foot-5 frame, his presence in the huddle, passing accuracy and ability to keep mistakes to a minimum. They weren't so kind with other aspects of his game, saying he was maddeningly inconsistent, isn't bulky or durable enough - some said he lacked physical and mental toughness - and didn't have the arm strength to be an effective NFL starter.

"It's not necessarily how hard you can throw the football," Ainge said. "I think 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. That to me isn't a deciding factor."

It wasn't to the Jets, either. Ainge is in camp as a potential backup to Chad Pennington and Kellen Clemens.

"You wouldn't be in this locker room if you didn't want to play," Ainge said. "If you're asking if I want to play, of course, but that's not what it's about. I'm not necessarily competing with Chad and Kellen right now. I'm competing with myself. I'm just coming out here and they're going to tell me what I need to do, and if I do that better, then I'm getting better as a football player."

Ainge has the poise in the locker room of a seasoned veteran, clearly a result of dealing with the pressure of playing in Knoxville. The nephew of former Boston star and current Celtics executive Danny Ainge, was a big recruit for the Volunteers after being Oregon's player of the year as a high school senior. Ainge started six games as a freshman at Tennessee before injuring his shoulder. He alternated with Clausen the following season before becoming the starter and developing into an NFL prospect.

"Honestly, the last thing I'm thinking about is a 14-year career and making $100 million," he said. "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 here in a minute and let them tear me up real quick and tell me what I need to get better at."

Ainge didn't do much throwing during the time the media were allowed to watch practice during the weekend, but he's made a good first impression on coach Eric Mangini.

"I've liked the things that he's done in the classroom," Mangini said. "He's held his own, and he's done a nice job there. 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. That's a tough spot to come in as a quarterback and to have to run the offense."

Ainge knows he has many things he has to work on -- "You could name it, I need to get better at it" -- but he's not here trying to prove any of his many critics wrong.

"If you get caught up in that, I think it's a mistake," Ainge said. "Everybody's got to learn, that's just how it works. That point was made very clear. Everything you did in college is college. Clean slate, and here we go."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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