Opportunity presents itself to Ferguson

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Butch Jones doesn't hesitate or speak in short when describing what he expects of his starting quarterback.

Be a model of consistency and performance, manage the football team, make split-second decisions, showcase supreme intelligence and understand situational football.

That's all in a media-present setting. The job comes with expansions beyond those detailed above, and Tennessee has four candidates resting neck-to-neck momentarily.

The 15 spring practices in Knoxville commence Friday and culminate with the Dish Network Orange & White game at Neyland Stadium on April 12.

"We will chart, film and evaluate everything," Jones said. "We will evaluate how they are in team meetings, in the classroom and how they perform in individual drills. Every rep is a valuable rep. You don't know how many reps you are going to get so you better make sure you make the most of every single rep. Every rep is for a championship. Each rep is for the becoming the starting quarterback. Has there been a timetable set on who our starting quarterback is? No, there are no timetables. That person will emerge. I don't know if it is the second week of spring, after the conclusion of the Orange & White game or a week prior to Utah State. That will take care of itself. Right now, they just have to work on making themselves better individually every day and being a leader. They have to prove that they can win at Tennessee."

One candidate some expect to play the role of the cream rising to the top is Riley Ferguson.

The 6-foot-3, 189-pounder didn't take one single, solitary snap his first semester on campus. Yet, here he is with as great of a chance as any of his three competitors — Joshua Dobbs, Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley — to be the starting quarterback when the Volunteers take the field against Utah State in August.

"Sure, absolutely," Vols offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told InsideTennessee. "He's gained valuable, valuable, valuable reps through training camp and through the season. We'll have an interesting competition heading into the offseason. They've all known from Day 1 they have to come out here and compete on a daily basis. That's a reality in and of itself.

"He's improved mechanically. He's improved mentally. He's done a good job."

What Ferguson lacks in game experience and a slightly elongated delivery he makes up with possibly the best deep ball on the team, making throws on the run and simply being a winner (two NCHSA state championships at Butler High School).

On top of having the grit and savvy to succeed at the position, Ferguson is but a semester behind older competitors Peterman and Worley with the current coaching staff. That time on Haslam Field plays a role (it's worth mentioning that numerous cameras video every Tennessee workout).

"Practice reps, reps in general," Bajakian points to. "Game reps are obviously extremely valuable. Practice reps are also very valuable. The progress that all those young guys have made through the course of practices has been positive.

"We talk to our guys — everybody — about practicing at game speed. So, he's getting game-speed reps here on the practice field.

"There's a lot of opportunity to go out and prove yourself and a lot of opportunity to improve. All those guys it's a matter of who's going to improve at a greater rate, who's going to master the skills that they need to master and the mental part of the game."

Video footage of the right-hander finding pass catchers in practice was shown to prized Class of 2014 wide receiver signee Josh Malone to get him to pick Tennessee over Clemson. That wouldn't have taken place if the staff wasn't ready to give Ferguson a shot at getting the job at some point.

Part of being "the guy" is mental toughness that Jones often speaks of, including playing through pain. Prior to his senior season, Ferguson competed in an Elite 11 competition…with a broken thumb. He also came back from a broken hand suffered in his final prep season to help the Bulldogs secure their 2012 title.

Ferguson, who turned 19 in January, threw for 2,173 yards and 25 touchdowns in just nine games his last year of prep ball in North Carolina.

Spring practices for the Volunteers get underway on Friday afternoon at 4:20.

Discuss Ferguson's chances at being the starter with InsideTennessee beat reporters and subscribers by clicking here.

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 Scout team July 2011.
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