Battle for Vol field general begins

Get an early, in-depth look at the quarterback competition that will last throughout the spring and summer in Knoxville with the latest from InsideTennessee.

When Tennessee huddles up on Shields-Watkins Field against Austin Peay on Aug. 31, who will be managing the Volunteers, calling the play and taking the snap is far from decided.

Between the four candidates — Joshua Dobbs, Riley Ferguson, Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley —there's only nine games and 110 pass attempts on the collegiate level among them, all coming from junior Worley, who started three contests his freshman season.

Thus, finding a replacement for early NFL Draft entree Tyler Bray is among the top storylines at the Vols' first spring camp under coach Butch Jones.

"We will do an inordinate amount of team repetitions this spring to identify not only who the quarterback is, but who can make plays when we rush the passer as well," Jones said during Friday's press conference.

Dobbs and Ferguson are the signees and won't be fitted for pads and pants until this summer. So, it's Peterman versus Worley all spring long.

"I don't know there is a leg up," Worley said of having game experience. "Coach Jones has come in and said, 'There's no depth chart.' Nobody's job is safe right now. I wouldn't say there is a leg up (on the other quarterbacks), but definitely having a little bit of experience helps out. It helps with my confidence a little bit."

All things aside, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is just glad to be back on the practice field, teaching football.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
The coaches finally get the chance to see the two elder right-handers compete in person with a football in their hands on Haslam Field come Saturday morning. With running backs coach Jay Graham's exodus to Florida State on Feb. 25, no one on the new staff has seen Peterman throw since his days at Bartram Trail (Fla.) High School.

"With quarterbacks, if you don't have a football in your hand, you're spending a lot of time doing drop technique and mental drills," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "Just to have a football in your hand and to see these guys throw for really the first time, I can't tell you how excited I am to see what we have to work with."

Bray accounted for 3,612 passing yards and threw for 34 touchdowns, completing an average of 22.3 passes per game. With the exception of a fractured thumb suffered against Georgia during his sophomore season, he had held down the QB job since the latter portion of his freshman campaign.

"There was still a competition last year," said Worley, who owns a 57.3 career completion percentage. "Most people thought Tyler was the guy, but there was still a small competition. This year, it's a little more wide open. We're all just trying to go in and run the offense and get comfortable with the new coaches. We're all just ready for practice and excited to start."

The truth is that there's a tremendous amount of unknown at the most important position on the field, especially with a new offense being installed under Bajakian. Plus, will a deep senior class buy into a QB trying to lead if he has never taken a snap? Remember, this is a 2013 schedule that contains road trips to Eugene, Ore., Gainesville, Fla., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.

"Great teams have leadership that can answer to sudden change opportunities," Jones said.

Looking at the offense as a whole, the offensive line is a strength and could help keep things under control — only there won't be any huddles under this Pro-Style/Spread attack.

The four returning O-line starters — Zach Fulton, Ja'Wuan James, Antonio Richardson and James Stone — enter with 104 starts under their belt.

Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman has 13 months of practice as an SEC quarterback under his belt.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Given the importance of winning in the trenches is as high or higher than anywhere in the country in the Southeastern Conference, Jones digs having a veteran group of hogs.

"It's great to have an experienced offensive line like we have. I rely on them," he said.

He won't be the only one. The unit has a legitimate shot at being the country's best in 2013. They were certainly in the argument in 2012 after being No. 5 in the NCAA in sacks allowed (8).

The head man stopped short of saying that their having been there, done that would remove some hesitancy in running a freshman out at quarterback with the understanding it'll be an easier attack to manage.

"It is very comforting knowing that we have a lot of individuals that have played really good football for us in the past," Jones said. "But in the end, it's going to come down to the individual who makes the fewest mistakes, is the manager of the game and takes care of the football and puts our offense and team in position to win games. It is a sense of comfort knowing that you have individuals who have played a lot of games and played well here."

Given the varying skill sets from Peterman to Worley, on down to the incoming green horns, it may be necessary to establish a starter far enough in advance of Austin Peay Week in order to game plan around those strengths. Bajakian isn't so sure.

"It won't be that important," Bajakian said. "Let's say one is great at the short, intermediate game and one has a very strong set in the vertical game, then it would become an issue. I'd rather have quarterbacks with the ability to make all the throws on the field than what it related to with their running ability.

"Even when we've had dynamic runners in this offense, I still want to make sure that we are managing that part of the game. We don't want to necessarily put them in adverse situations. Even if we have the most dynamic dual-threat quarterback in the world, if he's carrying the ball 25 times a games then how many is he going to make it through? It's not a big concern."

Jones said to look for a depth chart shortly before or after the Orange & White game (April 20), but he quickly noted how it will simply be used as a starting point for preseason camp.

Vol players Worley, Ja'Wuan James and A.J. Johnson address questions in this video:

See what else Jones had to say to the media at the Stokely Family Media Center on Friday in the IT video below:

Danny Parker is currently the Managing Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the InsideTennessee team July 2011.

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