How Butch Jones Can Solve Quarterback Issue Before the Start of the Season

Brad ShepardFeatured Columnist IVMarch 30, 2017

Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley throws to a receiver during the annual Orange and White NCAA college spring football game on Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Wade Payne

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones wisely didn't name a starting quarterback—or even a scribbled-out pecking order—following a competitive spring practice between his four candidates.

The decision likely will lead to all participants believing they've got a fair shake to win the job, cutting down the chance of a transfer. It also promotes an offseason atmosphere where every rep, every film study and every weight room session will be vital.

That benefits the Volunteers and all the quarterbacks in what should be a competitive offseason.

But the bottom line for Jones' Vols is the soonest into fall drills the team can name a starting quarterback, the better for all involved. For a young unit that could feature as many as seven or eight newcomers in the regular rotation, it's even more important. 

Following the Orange and White Game on April 12, Jones said he had "no timetable" on when he'd name a starter.

"We have to take tremendous strides," Jones said. "We turned the football over from the quarterback position today. You can't do that and play winning football so I'm very encouraged by where that position is in our program.

"…I'm encouraged by what I've seen but we still have a long way to go."

Jones needs to begin fall practice throwing Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson, Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman into game-simulation, live-action situations.

Nov 9, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) passes against the Auburn Tigers during the first half at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever makes the fewest mistakes should start Game 1 against Utah State. Simple as that.

A team full of freshman contributors is going to make enough blunders without its signal-caller being careless.

Worley is currently the least likely to make the catastrophic, game-flipping turnovers. While the rising senior also may not be as dynamic as Ferguson or Dobbs (the other two participants with a realistic chance of starting), he takes care of the ball. 

Tennessee has enough game-breaking talent on offense that if somebody can just distribute the football to them, they can do the rest. That's why Worley's the popular guess to start if the season began today.

While Worley finished an abbreviated 2013 season with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions, three of those picks came in a baffling performance against South Alabama. The rest of his time at the helm he was solid protecting possessions.

Worley's biggest problem came in his inability to consistently lead the offense. While part of that was an inexperienced receiving corps, he had his own accuracy and timing issues. He said having a more seasoned group of targets has really helped.

"I think it makes a huge difference, Year 1 to Year 2," Worley said. "Having these older guys that have been in the system allows for us to install more and work on the little things more. It comes with being in the system." 

As 2013 progressed, Worley improved his game management in a narrow loss to Georgia and a victory over South Carolina.

Wade Payne

Throughout this spring, he showed his maturation process has continued. During the spring finale, he was very sharp on timing patterns while confidently leading the offense to three scoring drives on the first-team UT defense.

One glorified scrimmage does not make a quarterback, but it does boost everybody's confidence.

Despite the progression of all of his quarterbacks, Jones simply hasn't found the man he believes is a confident, alpha-dog leader—or as he stated to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown, someone with a "genuine swagger"so he hasn't named a starter.

Worley shouldn't just be handed the job, but Ferguson or Dobbs will have to take it from him.

Redshirt freshman Ferguson spent most of the spring ahead of Dobbs on the depth chart, just as he did before a leg injury in 2013 forced him to redshirt. However, in the spring-ending scrimmage, he threw a bad interception as well as lost a fumble when he was sacked from the blind side.

Conversely, Dobbs had a breakout day, collecting 258 yards of total offense and leading the Vols on four touchdown drives, all of which were accounted for by him. The asterisk is it all came against reserves.

While it's not conducive to UT to split reps for a long time once fall practice starts, it's essential Dobbs and Ferguson get ample time against the first-team defense while facing every blitz package and game scenario the coaches can think of.

If one of them emerges alongside Worley, he should have the opportunity to start. If not, Worley has to be the guy going into the season. 

Coaches can't spend any time with players on the practice field during the offseason. But thanks to a new NCAA rule—according to the Associated Press via ESPN.comthere will be more time than normal for college coaches to spend with their quarterbacks in the film room.

That's going to be important teaching and evaluation time. Once fall practice starts, the competition needs to be whittled down quickly, and the staff needs to pick a quarterback and be patient with him for as long as they can. 

Rotating quarterbacks hurt the Vols last year, and they can't have it happen again. The confidence in the signal-callers around the program has blossomed with their spring performance, and the returns were largely positive, as this tweet about Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist John Adams indicates.

The Vols just need to know who it is so they can build their offense around his strengths. And the sooner, the better.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.