Between 1989 and 2007 Tennessee arguably boasted the finest quarterback play in college football.
Vastly underrated Andy Kelly posted a 24-5-2 record as the starting QB from 1989-91, including an impressive 10-3-2 mark in road and neutral-site games.
Dual-threat QB Heath Shuler led the Vols to a school-record 40 points per game in 1992, then was the Heisman runnerup in 1993 and the third player picked in the 1994 NFL Draft.
Peyton Manning went 39-6 as the starting quarterback from 1994-97. He was the Heisman runnerup in 1997 and the first player picked in the ’98 NFL Draft.
Fleet-footed Tee Martin guided Tennessee to a 13-0 record and 1998 national title in his first year as a starter.
Casey Clausen led the Vols to 34 wins in 44 starts between 2000 and 2003, including an amazing 14-1 road record.
Erik Ainge went 27-10 as a starter from 2004-07, helping Tennessee reach SEC Championship Games in Year 1 and Year 4.
That level of excellence couldn’t last forever, of course. Jonathan Crompton (2008-09) was wildly inconsistent until midway through his senior year, then Tyler Bray (2010-2012) put up big numbers but struggled as a closer.
That brings us to Justin Worley, the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a high school senior in 2010. He started three games as the Vols’ emergency QB his freshman year, beating Middle Tennessee but mustering just 3 points in a loss to South Carolina and 7 points in a loss to Arkansas. After riding the bench as a sophomore, he posted mediocre stats in eight games (seven starts) as a junior. He completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards, with 10 touchdowns, 8 interceptions and a 117.39 passer-efficiency rating that did not rank among the SEC’s top 15.
Heading into his senior year Worley’s record as a starter is 5-5, with four of the wins coming against Middle Tennessee, Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama. It would be easy to dismiss him as a journeyman except for one thing: Shortly before suffering a season-ending thumb injury last October he gave perhaps his two best performances as a Vol.
Worley completed 17 of 31 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown against No. 6 Georgia but saw the upset bid foiled when Pig Howard fumbled the ball inches from what probably would’ve been the winning TD in overtime. A week later Worley completed 19 of 34 passes for 179 yards and another TD in engineering a 23-21 upset of No. 11 South Carolina.
The key question: Can Worley replicate the form he showed against Georgia and South Carolina or will he be the guy who struggled against Florida (10 of 23, 149 yards, 2 interceptions) and South Alabama (20 of 36, 204 yards, 3 interceptions)?
Here’s another key question: If Worley struggles, can backup Joshua Dobbs do the job?
Apparently headed for a redshirt year in 2013, Dobbs was thrust into action when Worley suffered his season-ending thumb injury last October. With Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson also hurt, Dobbs was the only healthy QB on scholarship.
Dobbs opening tests represented quite a gauntlet. He came off the bench to challenge top-ranked Alabama in his college debut, made his first start the following Saturday at No. 10 Missouri and made his second start against No. 7 Auburn (the eventual BCS runnerup) seven days later. He closed his baptism of fire with a home game against Vanderbilt and a road game at Kentucky.
|Joshua Dobbs' first snaps on the collegiate level came in Tuscaloosa versus the defending national champions with his team losing.|
Dobbs’ running ability makes him an ideal fit for a zone-read attack that functions best when the QB is a rushing threat. He most recently showcased his elusiveness in the Orange & White Game, keeping twice for 59 yards, including a nifty touchdown run.
Tennessee’s coaches insist that passing ability trumps rushing ability in their system, however, which is why Worley looms as the Game 1 starter behind center. He has more experience than Dobbs and more familiarity with the offense. If he plays the way he did against Georgia and South Carolina last October, Worley can be a solid SEC quarterback. If he doesn’t, look for Dobbs to take over the starting job by October.
Nathan Peterman provides depth. The redshirt sophomore made a disastrous start last September at Florida (4 for 11, 5 yards, 2 interceptions and a fumble) but performed adequately in backup appearances against Austin Peay (4 of 8, 26 yards) and Oregon (2 of 4, 12 yards).
For what it’s worth, all three scholarship quarterbacks threw well in the Orange & White Game. Worley was 11 of 13 passing for 151 yards and a touchdown. Dobbs was 6 of 9 for 199 yards and three TDs. Peterman was 8 of 11 for 81 yards and a touchdown. These numbers mean little, however, given how limited Tennessee’s defense was last spring.
So, what’s the outlook at quarterback for the 2014 Vols?
That depends. Whoever the QB is, he’ll be blessed with three quality receivers in Marquez North, Von Pearson and Josh Malone. That’s three more than the Vols had last fall, when North was a gifted but raw freshman, Pearson was in junior college and Malone was finishing up high school. Honestly, Tennessee’s receivers were so bad in 2013 that even Peyton Manning would’ve struggled to look sharp throwing to them.
On the other hand, Tennessee will have five new starters in the offensive line this fall. Unless they develop quickly as pass protectors the 2014 quarterback — whoever it is — may spend more time running for his life than running the offense.
Bottom line: Tennessee’s quarterback play should be better in 2014 … largely because of the experience Worley and Dobbs gained in 2013 and the vast improvement in the receiving corps.