KNOXVILLE -- Another week, another twist in Tennessee's quarterback saga.
Justin Worley is expected to retake the starting position when the Volunteers host South Alabama on Saturday, but there's now new intrigue at the backup spot.
An injury to redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, who started Saturday's loss at 20th-ranked Florida, means Tennessee could be a snap away from playing Riley Ferguson or Josh Dobbs, each a true freshman.
"They're going to be more locked in probably, knowing that a snap away they could be in the game," senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said Monday. "I definitely feel like their intensity will pick up.
"I definitely want to see them. I always tell them, 'I want to play with you guys before I leave.' They say the same thing: They want to play behind us. I definitely think they'll be ready. I know it's a big difference going in there and the game management and all that, going from Haslam [Field] to a big venue.
"I feel like those guys are ready, and when their time is called, I think they'll be ready."
They may need to be for a while, too.
Peterman, who threw two interceptions, botched a handoff for a turnover and fumbled on a sack against the Gators, hurt his right throwing hand in the first half Saturday and underwent surgery Monday. The Vols will have a better idea on a timetable for Peterman later in the week, but first-year coach Butch Jones said he's out "at least" four weeks.
Tennessee's October schedule includes Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama in addition to the Vols' first bye week.
It'll be a change in preparation for both Ferguson and Dobbs, who have been behind Worley and Peterman through the season's first four weeks. Since the middle of camp, Ferguson has appeared ahead of Dobbs, who did not make the 70-man travel roster to Florida as Tennessee elected to take an extra player at another position instead of a fourth quarterback.
Jones said that's "absolutely no indication" of the pecking order for the two freshmen.
"The way we do things, usually our No. 2 quarterback gets equal amount of reps as our No. 1, and a lot of people say, 'Well, how can you have that much time?'" he said. "It's pretty much the same. It may be a difference of five or six snaps in practice, but both freshman quarterbacks will get ample amount of repetitions, and we have to do a great job of getting them ready to play mentally and physically as well.
"Just like anything in our program, they're going to have to earn their spot."
Ferguson likely would play if Worley is injured or ineffective or the Vols build a big lead against South Alabama, which is in its fourth year of existence as a program and its first as a full-fledged FBS member.
If there really is a battle for the backup job this week, Jones said a certain confidence level and the ability to manage the offense and take care of the ball will be the factors in the decision.
"Riley, he's just a smooth guy," James said. "He doesn't seem like he ever gets too excited or too low, and just from watching him and talking to him, he has a great arm, a smooth release and things like that.
"Dobbs, he's the same type of guy. He's extremely smart. He's a smart football player, and also his ability to move, he can run well. I feel like that helps in an offense."
Yet Worley apparently will reassume the reins of Tennessee's offense after Peterman earned the start at Florida last week in practice. The junior was 10-of-17 passing for 149 yards and led two scoring drives in the second half against the Gators.
Aside from an interception when he failed to throw the ball away, Worley "took some strides," Jones said.
"You look at Justin, the setback of when you're a competitor, it hurts when you're not the starter," he said, "but the way he managed his business, and when he got his opportunity, he didn't feel sorry for himself and he went in there.
"He was leading. When he wasn't in, he was still leading, and those are all the other things that I looked for in the quarterback intangibles. I was very pleased with that aspect."
The rest of Tennessee's offense probably has the best comfort level with Worley, who's taken most of the first-team reps dating back to spring practice.
"He remained the same Justin, even from the beginning from the start of the game," James said. "When we would huddle on the sideline, he was there encouraging us and saying, 'Let's go.' Pregame, even though he knew he wasn't starting, he was still coming to the line saying, 'Protect him, protect him, let's go.'
"When he got in the game, I feel like he took control of his opportunity, and I feel like he played pretty well."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...
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