Commentary

Seniors Ainge and Woodson are thankful for Sanders' tutelage

Updated: November 20, 2007, 1:08 PM ET
By Ron Higgins | Special to ESPN.com

Announcing the 2007 graduating class of the Randy Sanders School of Quarterbacks.

Please rise and come forward when your name is called.

[+] EnlargeRandy Sanders
Skip Williams/Icon SMI Randy Sanders has had a profound impact on Erik Ainge's and Andre Woodson's careers.

Andre' Woodson, University of Kentucky.

"I wonder all the time what would have happened if coach Sanders hadn't come here," Woodson said." If he hadn't shown up, I'm pretty confident I'd probably be standing on the sidelines."

Erik Ainge, University of Tennessee.

"I probably wouldn't have come to this university if it hadn't been for coach Sanders," Ainge said. "So all the success I've had wouldn't have happened for me if he hadn't recruited me."

Congratulations, gentlemen. Coach Sanders, you have the podium.

"No question there's some pride there for me in what both Andre' and Erik have accomplished," Sanders said. "They both have had tremendous college careers. No doubt they have a lot of football still ahead of them."

Both starting quarterbacks will face each other in the final regular-season game of their college careers on Saturday when No. 18 Tennessee visits Kentucky. The Vols need a win to advance to the SEC championship game.

The man in the middle of all this is Sanders, Kentucky's quarterbacks coach who has spent his first two years with the Cats molding Woodson into a potential first-round draft choice.

Prior to that, Sanders, a former Tennessee backup quarterback, spent 15 years on the Vols' staff, the last seven as offensive coordinator when he coached Ainge for the first two years of his career.

Woodson currently ranks No. 18 nationally in passing (2,921 yards, 30 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 63.1 completion percentage). Ainge is 19th (2,511 yards, 20 TDs, five interceptions, 64.5 percent).

In the beginning of Ainge's career in 2004-2005, it was Sanders who tried to settle Ainge. The talented signal-caller sizzled as a freshman, then fizzled as a sophomore as part of an ill-fated decision by Vols coach Phillip Fulmer to alternate Ainge and Rick Clausen as starters all season.

"Coach Sanders does a great job of teaching," said Ainge, who will finish his career as the school's third all-time leading passer behind Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen. "More than anything, he makes you be a football player. He wants you to go out there, run around and make plays."

Which is what Ainge did as a freshman.

He eventually earned the starting job from fellow freshman Brent Schaeffer (who transferred to a California junior college and then Ole Miss). Even though Ainge's season ended early (he sustained a shoulder separation in Game 9 against Notre Dame), he still threw for a Tennessee freshman record 17 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeErik Ainge
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesQuarterback Erik Ainge says Sanders was the main reason he became a Vol.

Clausen finished that season as a starter and was the offensive MVP in Tennessee's Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M, but Ainge got his job back in before the 2005 season.

Yet a couple of befuddling performances sent Fulmer into a tizzy. He began a week-to-week QB competition between Ainge, who had the bigger arm, and Clausen, the cerebral fifth-year senior who had better command of the offense.

The season turned out to be a disaster. The Vols had no running game and spotty offensive-line play, so there was no balance to back off defenses. Clausen was shaky throwing downfield, so defenses crowded the line.

Ainge, who was shuffling in and out of the lineup, played with no confidence. The recipe for disaster resulted in Tennessee's first losing season (5-6) since 1988 and Sanders submitting his resignation. "Erik didn't know a whole lot as a freshman, so we didn't try to teach him what he didn't know," Sanders said. "We taught him enough to survive the season, because that's what we felt we had to do to win. He did a good job with that. "We came back the next year and started trying to teach him everything. He got a little bogged down with that, he got bogged down splitting time with Rick. The team was a little divided at who they wanted at quarterback. All those things made it tough for both he and Rick.

"Erik didn't have a great sophomore year, but there were a lot of other people on the team that didn't play well that year. It wasn't just the quarterback."

Still, it was Sanders who took the knife for everyone. It bothered Ainge when it happened, and it still nags him. "It wasn't his fault when we went 5-6," said Ainge, who has had his rough edges smoothed out by former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, the Vols' offensive coordinator in his second tour of duty. "There were a lot of reasons for that. There's always the one person that takes the fall, and unfortunately it was him."

Sanders, who was coached by Cutcliffe when he played at UT, didn't wait too long to find a new job. Kentucky coach Rich Brooks was looking for a quarterbacks coach. Whomever he hired had to polish Woodson, a nicely sculpted 6-foot-6, 230-pound specimen who relied more on athletic ability than anything.

Which is why Woodson was a breakeven QB, a guy who threw as many interceptions as touchdowns, someone who rarely strung together two good games. "I liked Randy as a person, but more importantly I was very impressed with the job he did over the years at Tennessee." Brooks said. "He had vast experience as a coordinator, as well as a position coach. He had good recruiting connections and knowledge of the SEC."

So in the spring of 2006, Sanders, having spent most of his life in Knoxville with a closet full of orange coaching shirts, suddenly found himself in Kentucky blue. "It's hard to leave your alma mater, especially when I'd been there so long and it meant so much to me," Sanders said. "But at the same time, it has been refreshing seeing a different way of doing things. "At Tennessee, we never changed & the way we did things, from the time I was a player through my coaching career. We did things pretty much the same the whole time, so if it's not broke why fix it? "We [Kentucky] have a different approach toward practice and a different approach towards lots of things. Some of the things we do here I like, some of the things we did at Tennessee I liked. I've had fun at both places."

[+] EnlargeAndre Woodson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAndre' Woodson admits his work ethic wasn't very good, but Sanders' arrival in Kentucky changed that.

Sanders' immediate challenge was changing Woodson's skeptical attitude. "The biggest thing for me was just to trust him," Woodson said of Sanders. "When he first got here, coach Sanders was my seventh quarterback coach in the last eight years [dating back to Woodson's high school career]. I had been through a lot of coaches and it was tough for me to adjust."

Sanders understood Woodson's reluctance. "There were a lot of people before me trying to get Andre' to do things a certain way," Sanders said. "We finally reached the point where we sat down and had a talk. "I said to Andre', 'I know you don't trust me, and I understand why. But let's just try this. Let's take this week, go out and try to do what exactly what I want you to do. If it works, then we can grow with it. If it doesn't work, you can go back to doing what you're doing, because you're doing your own things anyway.' "He went out there, he trusted me, he started having success and he started seeing what I told him was working. Then he started hanging on what I was asking him to do. I believe I could have asked him to turn and throw it to me on the sideline, and [he] would have done it. That's when you have a special relationship."

Woodson agreed he thoroughly bought into Sanders. "Before he got here, I never had the work ethic to be better," Woodson said. "I was just going through the motions in practice, I didn't work hard, I didn't watch enough tape to prepare myself for games. "Until coach Sanders got here, I didn't have an understanding of that. Once he got here, everything changed."

Woodson's transformation has been startling. His first two seasons in 19 games (11 starts), he threw for 2,136 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Before he got here, I never had the work ethic to be better. I was just going through the motions in practice, I didn't work hard, I didn't watch enough tape to prepare myself for games. Until Coach Sanders got here, I didn't have an understanding of that. Once he got here, everything changed.

Kentucky QB Andre' Woodson on Randy Sanders

The past two seasons in 24 games (all starts) and counting, Woodson has thrown for 6,436 yards, 61 TDs and 15 interceptions. His decision making has been so solid that earlier this year he set an NCAA record for most consecutive passes attempted (325) without an interception.

Both Ainge and Woodson agree Sanders' sideline manner has a lot to do with staying on an even keel during the heat of battle.

"If you make a bad play, coach Sanders is not going to freak out," Ainge said. "He's going to say, 'What did you see? What did you do? Let's go do it again.'"

Added Woodson, "In any football game, there's things that are going to go wrong. You have coaches who go off and yell at everybody. Then, you have coaches like coach Sanders who calmly stands over there and tries to calmly talk to you, and asks you about the situation. It helps you relax, stay calm and be a poised as you can be."

When Saturday's game is over, maybe Ainge and Woodson can meet for a handshake, and one last picture with the coach whose deft guiding hand touched them both. "It's going to be a unique situation for me," Sanders said of Saturday's game. "It's not often you take the field with two guys that you coached, that you are close to, and I care about as much as I do Andre' and Erik."

Ron Higgins covers the Southeastern Conference for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.