The Tennessee football team's quarterback carousel has been maddening this season, producing three different starters and just four wins through 10 games.
Despite these frustrations, the resolution to the Volunteers worries at the team's most important position may already be on the roster. The next step is just finding out who it is—incumbent true freshman starter Joshua Dobbs or unused classmate Riley Ferguson.
What has become obvious this season (sometimes painfully so) is that Vols coach Butch Jones is intent on running a fast-paced, read-option-oriented offense. While that style works best with a dual-threat quarterback, both Dobbs and Ferguson have enough mobility and intelligence to make it thrive.
Dobbs has shown flashes of his abilities in three games of action. Though his arm strength is still nowhere near where it needs to be, the Alpharetta, Ga., native showed stellar improvement between his first start against Missouri and last week's loss to Auburn.
Coach Jones told Volquest.com's Paul Fortenberry (subscription required) this week that he believes Dobbs has made significant strides but still had a couple of major things on which to work:
I thought just the overall management (was improved). Some of the pulls on the zone-read (were better). He still missed a couple of them, and we'll continue to evolve in that. Where his biggest stride has to come moving forward is the deep ball. We have to be able to throw the deep ball with a higher percentage rate, a higher percentage of being successful, a higher success rate. So that's now the next phase that we're working extremely hard on.
Dobbs already has proven extremely capable of running the read-option, and his intelligence—off the field as well as on—won't ever be questioned. Dobbs' ability to pass and make plays with his feet reminds 247Sports National Recruiting Director JC Shurburtt of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.
So far, Dobbs has done a good job of reading through his progressions, and though he hasn't always made the right decisions, he has shown enough savvy beyond his three games of experience to hold a firm grasp on the job.
Because of Dobbs' background and his academic prowess, being a vocal leader is something that has become inherent, according to the young QB (per UTSports.com):
I feel like it comes natural. It's a part of the quarterback position. I've always done it, so it's just a habit I have; just have to continue to work on it, find my skills and continue to get better. It's not tough. Being the quarterback, people look to you when things go wrong, so you just get used to it. Being a quarterback, it requires being a leader.
As for Ferguson, the fact that he was ahead of Dobbs on the depth chart prior to getting banged up at the wrong time only fuels speculation that he had displayed the same attributes Jones prefers in his quarterbacks, only perhaps a bit better than Dobbs.
With Dobbs playing well enough to retain his job and Nathan Peterman now healthy, there's simply no current reason to remove the redshirt from Ferguson. So, that battle to begin 2014 as the starter will truly heat up after this season.
Ferguson will have every opportunity to unseat Dobbs again if he shows Jones that he has the talent, intangibles and swagger necessary to play the position.
So, what is Jones looking for in a long-term answer at quarterback?
As reported by UTSports.com, Jones noted prior to the Missouri game that, "I don't like changing quarterbacks unless we have to. I don't like individuals looking over their shoulders and thinking that if they mess up one play, am I coming out?"
That comment indicates Jones wants to pick a single horse and ride him.
History indicates that the head coach doesn't necessarily have to have a top NFL-caliber prospect at the quarterback position for his offense to thrive.
Upon replacing Brian Kelly at Central Michigan, Jones inherited a mid-major star in sophomore signal-caller Dan LeFevour. Under Jones, LeFevour became the all-time NCAA Bowl Subdivision's leader in total touchdowns (150), and he finished second with 15,853 yards of total offense.
LeFevour certainly qualifies as dynamic for the level at which he played.
When Jones went to Cincinnati, he helped mold Zach Collaros into a player who threw 41 touchdowns and accounted for 5,047 total yards over his final two seasons. Once Collaros left, Jones attempted to employ dual-threat quarterback Munchie Legaux but switched to Brendan Kay, who was more of a dropback QB, on the way to a 10-3 season.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this sample set is simple: Jones' system creates productive quarterbacks, not the other way around.
When Jones was asked prior to the Mizzou game what attributes he looks for in a quarterback, his generic answer didn't contain the word "mobility."
It is who can manage the offense? We look at consistency and performance each day, who has good command presence that is needed, the leadership, and game management. We look at who can avoid the catastrophic plays and understand situational football. I think the full gambit of intangibles is to understand the game plan. It comes down to execution that starts in practice.
Make no mistake, though: Jones prefers somebody who can move the pocket and make things happen in the option game with his feet. That's why his offense thrived with LeFevour at the helm.
A player who is physically imposing, has mobility and is blessed with great arm strength would be the perfect fit for this offense. While neither Dobbs nor Ferguson has all those physical attributes, there is enough of all three present in each to lead Tennessee back to prominence.
Can Jones' offense succeed in the SEC? History certainly demonstrates that it has thrived everywhere else. It just needs an intelligent, talented quarterback who can execute the system—attributes Dobbs and Ferguson already possess.
But most importantly, whatever quarterback emerges as "The Future" needs dynamic players around him. The biggest difference in Jones' offense thriving in the SEC as opposed to the MAC or Big East is that recruiting more difference-makers at the skill positions is necessary.
At CMU, Jones was able to dominate with LeFevour and current Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. Cincinnati's Collaros had a few weapons around him, like current NFL running back Isaiah Pead and current pro receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and D.J. Woods.
You can't win in the SEC with just a one or two such playmakers. That's why it's vital that Jones' first full recruiting class has swollen to 31 players and currently ranks second on 247Sports' team rankings.
The Vols also have a few nice wide receiver pieces on the roster in freshmen Marquez North, Josh Smith and sophomore Alton "Pig" Howard.
Jones is building a program, and he's assembling a stellar supporting cast for his quarterback. This year has been painful to watch at times, but help in the form of top recruits—at least at every position but quarterback—is on the way.
For a recruiting class this huge not to have a quarterback could be indicative of the confidence Jones has in Dobbs or Ferguson to be the centerpiece of his offense moving forward. The Vols took a couple of swings at blue-chip QB prospects in this year's cycle but otherwise did not place a major emphasis on the position.
But the way Jones has been recruiting, it's still not out of the question that the Vols pursue and land a dynamic game-changer at quarterback in next year's class. UT has scholarship offers out to numerous dual-threat prospects like Lorenzo Nunez, Jarrett Stidham and Kevin Dillman.
For now, however, it looks like it'll be Dobbs or Ferguson in 2014, and both are very capable. There's no reason that either one of them can't be the quarterback who leads UT back to being competitive in the league despite their ultimate deficiencies in fulfilling the dual-threat, read-option prototype.
Jones' history of quarterback development—despite clunky early periods of adjustment at each of his previous coaching stops—suggests he knows how to choose, handle and mold players at the position.
And Dobbs and Ferguson have plenty of strong tools with which to work.