CORTLAND, N.Y. - Erik Ainge used to be the big man on campus, a star quarterback at the University of Tennessee with a rifle arm and a bright future.
Entering his second season with the New York Jets, Ainge is merely a third-string bystander - a forgotten man of sorts - while hotshot rookie Mark Sanchez and veteran Kellen Clemens compete for the starting job.
"It's a challenge," Ainge said between training camp practices Wednesday. "I just come out here and when they say that the third group's up, in my mind, it's the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl."
It's the mentality the 23-year-old Ainge needs to have as the dog days of training camp run into each other. With all eyes on Sanchez and Clemens, Ainge has become little more than an afterthought.
"I understand what my role is on this date, right now, and I'm going to accept that, but I won't be satisfied by it," he said. "I'm not at all content with that. I want to try to beat these guys out."
That's not going to happen out of training camp, of course, with Ainge not even in the conversation. But he's looked solid this summer and secured the third-string job with a nice performance in the preseason-opening loss to St. Louis last Friday.
"We have a super No. 3 quarterback, that's what he's shown me," coach Rex Ryan said. "Could he be a No. 2 or a starter in this league? Probably."
Ainge was 10 of 17 against St. Louis for 148 yards and a touchdown, a 50-yard toss to David Clowney that put the Jets ahead briefly in the fourth quarter.
"Straight up, I have seen Ainge mature in the time he's been here," Clowney said. "I definitely see him getting better every day, and you can tell he's studying harder and paying attention to details."
Ainge remains on the field with quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh after almost every practice to work on his footwork and fundamentals.
"Guys in the NFL, when they get here, they're a small fish in a big pond," receiver Wallace Wright said. "He has handled it pretty well. He's the third QB right now, but you never know. If people get hurt, you could go from No. 3 to No. 1 just like that."
Ainge also has shown off his arm a bit, flinging a 60-yard desperation attempt down the field as time expired against the Rams.
"He surprised a lot of people with that, but that's what the preseason is all about," Wright said. "You go out there and shock the world and show everybody that you are that player you were hyped up to be in college."
Ainge, the nephew of Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, certainly had his share of attention at Tennessee. He broke Peyton Manning's freshman record with 17 touchdown passes in 2004 before injuries plagued him the next few seasons. Ainge then led Tennessee to a win over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl as a senior, despite playing with a broken pinkie on his throwing hand and a shoulder injury.
"Coming out of college, I was pretty beat up," Ainge said.
His rookie season with the Jets was a wash after he hurt his right foot and was put on injured reserve midway through the year. Then came a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on steroids and related substances.
Ainge also missed part of the team's voluntary workouts for personal reasons.
"There's nothing I could do about any of that," said Ainge, without going into details, "but now I feel I'm in a really good spot, everything's looking up and looking forward."
While Ainge works for an opportunity on the field, he finds solace off it in the music he loves: classic rock. He has a collection of about 30 T-shirts from various concerts and bands, such as the Def Leppard "Pyromania" one he wore when he reported for camp, and the Pearl Jam "Red Mosquito" shirt he sported after the preseason opener.
"Dude, it's like, all I wear," he said, laughing. "I have a few collared shirts, but sometimes I have to go home and change because they won't let me into places. They're like, 'You have to wear a collared shirt.' Everybody always calls me, 'Here's to you, Mr. Rock 'n' Roll T-shirt Guy.' "