KNOXVILLE — When pressed about who'd he pick to be his starting quarterback if Tennessee had a real game to play, Butch Jones said he needed more time.
Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman will have plenty of it to prove they're worthy of the keys to the Tennessee coach's first team.
With 15 spring practices in the book, the Volunteers' quarterback competition changes its course toward the summer months, when the coaches disappear, leadership becomes paramount and two new faces join the fray.
It's a critical time in one of Tennessee's most important offseason storylines at a position Jones says sets the tone for an entire program.
"He's stressed it a lot to us," Worley said after Saturday's Orange and White Game put a bow on Jones' first spring at Tennessee. "He'll in come into our quarterback meeting and kind of burst in the door and write 'Leadership' on the board or things like that and touch on small things about how we can help the team and influence others around us. He's put a lot on us from the standpoint of [being] leaders, but it kind of falls back on us, too."
Though Worley took nearly all of the first-team snaps throughout most of the spring, there's little evidence to suggest the Vols' quarterback race is anything but wide open.
And Jones probably likes it that way.
"Obviously when we move forward," he said, "this summer will really me a lot of where we're at."
When the Vols do get to training camp in August, freshman Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, both of whom were in attendance on Saturday for Worley and Peterman's combined 17-of-41, 221-yard spring-game performance, will enter the mix. Though difficult to project, it's certainly possible for a freshman to come in and win a starting job. Ferguson and Dobbs both have some impressive skills and intangibles, and all signs point to them having the chance to prove what they can do.
Asked where Worley and Peterman needed to devote time and effort during the offseason, Jones replied, "Everything," and rattled off some of the priorities.
"Taking ownership in our receivers, tight ends, running backs and developing that trust and timing. Overall leadership, overall command presence, being the alpha male and understanding that. Growing their leadership, the overall knowledge of the game, and letting the game slow down a little bit when it comes to them."
Neither Jones nor offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian can provide any plans of actions or summer itineraries per NCAA rules, so the Vols become a self-led team under the eye of strength coach Dave Lawson and his staff.
"I can't give them anything," Bajakian said after a practice last week. "This summer's a chance for them to develop their leadership ability. Justin Worley probably has a pretty good idea of the routes he wants to work on, and Nathan Peterman has a good idea of the routes he wants to work on, so it's up to them to take that responsibility on themselves and put a summer plan together.
"They've improved drastically in their leadership ability over the course of spring, and I anticipate they'll continue to do that."
Though he's liked the workmanlike approach Worley and Peterman, Jones reiterated throughout spring his desire for his quarterback to show more of a command presence, and both players have acknowledged the need for improvement in that area.
"I think both Nathan and I are very relatable," Worley said. "We've got good personalities. We can easily talk to the guys on the team.
"I think we both earn the respect of our peers around us, and I think that's how we can both help."
Peterman, who, like Worley, made the Southeastern Conference academic honor roll in 2012, recalled Peyton Manning's message when the legendary Tennessee quarterback met with the Vols earlier this month.
"It keeps coming into my head that he stressed the summer is going to be big, and it was big when he was here," the redshirt freshman said. "You've got to get on the same page of the receivers, and Coach Jones stressed that, too, when we just met after the game, saying he's handing the team over to us and Coach Lawson. We've got to take ownership of it and get better."
Some of the quarterback evaluations this spring were affected by Tennessee's receivers, a young unit that battled inconsistency, drops and injuries. Once that corps returns to full health and adds a couple of intriguing freshman in the summer, throwing sessions will become important chances at improvement. Unlike the winter, there's now a base in place, too.
"More than anything, they're able to develop the timing with the wide receivers," Bajakian said. "Now that we have a quote-unquote route tree in, now that we have a set of routes that they know and understand, as opposed to the winter when we didn't have any of the offense installed, so they go out and throw, but what were they throwing? They were throwing old routes.
"But now that they know the offense, they can develop a much better timing with their wide receivers, their tight ends and the running backs."
As Jones noted, great teams have great leadership from their quarterback.
"We both have that ingrained in us," Peterman said. "Quarterback's got to be the leader, and that's just on any team in football. You've got to know that as a quarterback, and you've got to know that that's just as important a part of your position as throwing a good ball."
Now there's plenty of time to work on both.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...