With new head coach Butch Jones set to kick off his first spring in Knoxville on Friday, a lot of general uncertainty surrounds the Tennessee Volunteers football program. Coming off three consecutive losing seasons during the failed Derek Dooley experiment and recently losing Jay Graham–their only holdover from the previous staff–there expects to be plenty of competition at every position.
However, with Tyler Bray electing to try his luck in the 2013 NFL Draft amid all the change, it’s no secret that the collective gaze of the Tennessee Volunteers faithful will be affixed on a quarterback battle that begins at the onset of camp. Meanwhile, highly-touted freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs won’t be on the field in pads until fall camp, so returning lettermen Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley will have their first real chance to separate themselves from the pack beginning on Friday.
Worley, a junior from South Carolina, brings starting experience to the table, having started three games for an injured Bray during his freshman year. However, don’t expect Worley’s 110 career pass attempts to be enough to give him the clear leg up. As Butch Jones begins his install later this week, things will quickly begin to take a dramatically different shape offensively and a more modernized look on that side of the ball leads many to speculate that Peterman is simply the better fit.
A redshirt freshman, Peterman is clearly the more athletic option of the two and he was recruited heavily by Jones and his staff at Cincinnati. While that doesn’t give him any more of an advantage than Worley’s experience, it does at least appear to indicate that Peterman fits philosophically in Butch’s offense.
Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian has experience with dual-threat quarterbacks like Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour and Cincinnati’s Zach Collaros, and although he was listed as a pro-style quarterback coming out of high school, Peterman impressed with his athleticism at times last offseason before ultimately redshirting behind Worley and Bray in Dooley’s system. But despite this conventional wisdom pointing us towards Peterman as the better fit, it should shape up as an interesting spring football position battle nonetheless.
SEC experience isn’t something to be scoffed at, and Worley played well in stretches under difficult circumstances on a bad football team as a true freshman. Not to mention, Dobbs’ late National Signing Day switch from Arizona State seems to indicate that Jones and his staff are still pitching the opportunity to play early for the freshman, with Ferguson a likely redshirt given his body type and coming off an injury riddled (yet successful) senior season.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tennessee’s quarterback competition before the arrival of both freshmen is whether or not either Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman can gain a significant edge over one another. Worley has earned a reputation as a kid with a high football IQ, and if he can digest Butch’s install quickly he could potentially put some distance between himself and the young Peterman during the early part of camp.
Regardless of who comes out of the spring in the lead, or if anyone stakes claim to a lead at all, it’ll be one of the single most intriguing aspects of this transitional phase for Tennessee Volunteers football. This is a positional battle that won’t be won or lost in the spring, yet it should draw the attention of a ravenous fanbase because–let’s face it–all quarterback contests are bound to raise a high profile.
If I had to make a gut prediction right now, I’d actually lean towards bucking the Peterman trend. Worley has a clear rapport with the rest of this offense, and if Butch hopes to be competitive immediately his combination of accuracy, intelligence and leadership may come without the growing pains of Peterman’s raw talents.
And with a trip to Autzen Stadium to play Oregon on the docket for Sept. 14 followed by a trip to The Swamp, there won’t be a lot of time to adjust to a freshman quarterback–be it Peterman, Dobbs or Ferguson.