Tennessee's spring football practice is careening toward a conclusion with no end in sight to the Volunteers' four-man quarterback free-for-all.
That's not necessarily a bad thing for head coach Butch Jones either.
UT would love for a quarterback—or more—to emerge from the competition and begin to assert himself as a leader who consistently makes plays without catastrophic, drive-ending mistakes.
Even if that happens, though, Jones should keep his preference close to the vest and the Vols should wait out the offseason before narrowing the race.
Who will ultimately win the competition to be Tennessee's starting quarterback?
With rising senior Justin Worley being the most experienced signal-caller, coupled with his gradual improvement before a season-ending injury suffered against Alabama, you have to believe he'd be one of the top two.
Decreasing the practice repetitions for either sophomore Joshua Dobbs or redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson could cause one of the talented duo to bolt for a clearer path to playing time.
The worst resolution to this race for the Vols would be to have one of their two promising young quarterbacks transfer out of the program.
While Dobbs would be less likely to leave due to his aerospace engineering major not being offered everywhere, he is talented enough to play somewhere now. He was committed to Arizona State for months before flipping to UT on national signing day in 2013.
After an injury forced him to redshirt last season, Ferguson must be chomping at the bit to get on the field. He told Volquest.com (subscription required) about his progress this week:
Yeah, (the game is) slowing down a lot. Learning the playbook's the main thing. And that's what I feel like I have a really good grasp on now. Learning defenses, because there's a checklist we have to go through within that first 10 seconds and it's a lot of things to go through. So we just have to keep practicing them and that's the main thing we've been working on in practice and things like that. Everything's starting to slow down now.
Ferguson obviously believes a light is coming on for him, and if he isn't firmly in the mix to play this year, it could be a blow to his confidence.
Neither Dobbs nor Ferguson have ever even hinted at the possibility of a transfer, but both obviously want to play.
Both have the potential for bright futures and Jones wants to keep them around longer to see which one blossoms into a star. The best way to do that is to continue the competition through offseason workouts and into the fall.
However, the coaching staff faces a conundrum in doing that.
While competition is healthy at any position, splitting reps among four quarterbacks isn't desirable. Not only can the participants struggle to get into a throwing rhythm, but the supporting cast may not build the same rapport that it would with a secure starter.
That may be the chief reason nobody has separated from the pack.
"Everyone has flashed," UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told The Daily Times' Grant Ramey. "The word we keep emphasizing is consistency. We don't have the consistency we want, frankly at any position, but particularly at the quarterback position."
Quarterback battles are the norm, and this spring in the SEC, they're everywhere as teams try to replace star signal-callers departed for the NFL draft.
Case in point: Once Florida State transfer Jacob Coker gets to Tuscaloosa, Alabama will have a six-man race to replace A.J. McCarron. That war won't wind down until near the beginning of the season. As such, the competition in Knoxville is nothing out of the ordinary.
In a perfect world, Ferguson and Dobbs would both begin to get more comfortable with the offense this spring and enter fall camp believing they have a legitimate possibility to start.
If that happens, the loser of the derby would still be compelled to stick around and fight for reps.
Right now, even beat reporters who cover the Vols are guessing who will take the reins against Utah State:
@ascross1960 if the season started today, I'd say Worley. but on Aug. 31, i might lean toward Ferguson. still a long way to go.— Evan Woodbery (@TennesseeBeat) March 27, 2014
So, while Tennessee's quarterback battle certainly needs leaders to step forward, perhaps giving everybody a lengthy, fair shot is the reason Jones showed no urgency prior to spring practice in naming a starter.
He explained his approach during a press conference in early March:
That person will emerge. I don't know if it's the second week of spring, I don't know if it's after the conclusion of the Orange & White Game, I don't know if it's a week prior to Utah State. That will take care of itself. But, right now, they have to worry about making themselves better each and every day, being a leader and proving they can win at Tennessee.
Nobody in the cluster has proven yet that he can lead a winning football team. If waiting a little while longer to name a starter saves one of the young guns from leaving, it's worth the risk for the Vols.