TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Another trip to Alabama, another burned redshirt for a Tennessee true freshman quarterback.
When Justin Worley, who made his debut at second-ranked Alabama in 2011, was forced to leave the Volunteers' 45-10 loss to the top-ranked Crimson Tide on Saturday, Tennessee tabbed Josh Dobbs to run its offense.
Dobbs played well in a hostile road SEC environment against the top scoring defense in the country. He completed five of his dozen passing attempts for 75 yards, added 19 yards rushing and orchestrated the Vols' two scoring drives.
"I was proud of him," senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "I was surprised he came in with that much poise. I've seen it similar with [Tyler] Bray, when Bray had to do it our freshman year. Dobbs did a great job. He didn't look scared at all. He just went in there and competed.
"I didn't see anything nervous about him. When I heard he was going in, I went up to him like, 'Hey, man, go out here and have fun -- you've got nothing to lose. You're playing the No. 1 team. You don't get to do it every day.' I told him we're not in high school football in Georgia no more. We're out here for real. He went out there and responded well."
Worley, who led late go-ahead scoring drives the past two games against Georgia and South Carolina, hit his hand on a South Carolina defender's helmet during the first half of last week's game. The junior wore gloves in practice both Tuesday and Wednesday this past week and played with his right thumb taped.
He was hit while throwing a pass Alabama cornerback Deion Belue intercepted in the second quarter Saturday, and after he made the tackle on the play, a group of trainers huddled around Worley on the sideline.
Though Dobbs nearly went in late in that quarter, Worley showed some toughness by returning to lead the Vols to the Tide's 24-yard line, but his wobbly pass turned into an 89-yard pick-six for Alabama safety Landon Collins.
"He could have went, but he had a hard time throwing the ball with any velocity at all, so instead of risking further injury, we went with Josh," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "I thought under the circumstances ... Josh did some really good things for us throwing the ball. I thought he was, for the most part, accurate, and he managed the offense.
"For a true freshman coming in in this environment, I was very proud of the way he handled the circumstances."
Dobbs, a four-star prospect Tennessee nabbed from Arizona State on signing day, went in ahead of fellow freshman Riley Ferguson, who wore a black sleeve on his right calf and limped both in practice this week and during pregame warmups.
"We all came to him at halftime and told him, 'Man, we believe in you. Just go in there and be poised,'" left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "The thing about him, he's not a very arrogant or pompous type of person. He's very humble, and we just told him we believed in him.
"He's a very smart kid. He's just got to do what he's been doing every week. That's preparing and just waiting for his number to be called."
Rajion Neal broke off a 43-yard run on Dobbs' first snap, but Jones called time out to avoid a delay-of-game penalty on the ensuing snap. The drive, which ended in a field goal, stalled when Johnathon Johnson dropped a third-down pass.
Dobbs threw a 16-yard pass to fellow freshman Marquez North, ran for a first down and connected with Johnson for 24 yards on his next possession, but that drive stalled at Alabama's 42. On Tennessee's lone touchdown drive, Dobbs hit North for a 29-yard gain, took a big hit on a 7-yard run and hit Jason Croom with a dart to complete a fourth-and-3 at Alabama's 8.
Jones said he anticipates Worley to be "full go" for practice this week, though he added Dobbs "absolutely" warranted more of a look as the Vols move to November.
"He's come a long way," Jones said. "His accuracy's improved; his arm strength continues to improve, his command presence, his leadership. He continues to improve just like Riley Ferguson continues to improve.
"As you can see, he adds another element in terms of making plays with his legs. I look forward to going back and really watching him, but I thought with the circumstances, he did some really good things."
That's what Coach Jones called the two long kickoff returns Tennessee allowed to Christion Jones, who took the game's opening kickoff 49 yards to midfield and returned a third-quarter kick 57 yards.
Tennessee entered the game ninth in the SEC in kick return defense, holding opponents to 21.7 yards per return.
"We kicked the ball in the middle of the field, and any time you do that, you're behind right now," the Vols' coach said. "We had a little bit of a misplaced kick, and then we've got to rally and get the ball down.
"We knew they were an extremely talented kickoff-return team. Their returner's very good, so everything had to line up, from kick placement to winning our one-on-one matchups. I'll see more when I watch the film."
Tennessee pooched its third kickoff short.
Alex Bullard started the game at left guard after he was limited in practuce during the week with a left ankle injury. The senior did not start against South Carolina last week due to the injury and disciplinary reasons.
Freshman receiver Josh Smith returned after a hamstring injury suffered in practice forced him to miss the South Carolina game and caught a 9-yard pass late in the second quarter.
Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry played for the first time since he hurt his knee against Oregon in September when he came in during the second quarter.
Safety Byron Moore, who left the field on crutches in a walking boot, suffered a sprained right ankle in the second half.
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 ...