KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee made its quarterbacks live for contact during Friday's practice, but even that couldn't slow Riley Ferguson.
The freshman has played well enough to split second-team reps with Nathan Peterman this week, and first-year coach Butch Jones volunteered his praise for Ferguson's Friday performance.
The coach also reminded everyone to stop before they start.
"The individual who stepped up was Riley Ferguson," Jones said. "Don't write about it. He's not the starting quarterback. We don't have a starting quarterback right now, so don't put words in my mouth.
"I thought he showed some poise. The thing I liked about him was his pocket presence. He doesn't get rattled, and he made some big throws."
The 6-foot-3, 173-pound Ferguson committed to Tennessee's previous coaching staff last summer, and the Vols' new staff liked what they saw enough to sign him in February.
The coaches have liked what they've seen so far in his first preseason practice.
"One of the things we look for is a winner, and Riley comes from a very successful high school program where they won multiple state championships," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Thursday. "Obviously he has that pedigree, and we want a guy that comes in with the confidence and the ability to step in and be the alpha male, be the leader. Riley has a lot of confidence.
"He has a strong arm, is accurate and at this point we're trying to minimize the turnovers and all that. He's aggressive, and I like that. He can make all the throws on the field, so he has a lot of talent and will have a promising future."
How soon that future arrives is the uncertain part.
At least during the open viewing periods of practice, Ferguson has shared second-team repetitions with the redshirt freshman Peterman as Justin Worley continues to handle all the first-team reps. It happened again during 7-on-7 work Friday, when the freshman completed one of his two attempts after Peterman's two completions.
Josh Dobbs, the Vols' other freshman, took no snaps during that period and handed off to running backs during an 8-on-8 period with the offensive and defensive lines, linebackers, backs and tight ends in one practice earlier this week, whereas Worley, Peterman and Ferguson threw to receivers.
Ferguson perhaps has the best arm of any of the four competitors in Tennessee's quarterback derby.
"His arm strength is awesome, and it's awesome to see him throw the ball," Worley said Thursday. "Even in warmups, he's slinging it around. He's grasped the offense as well as we all have."
The gunslinger mentality got the best of Ferguson early in the preseason, most notably when he forced a pass directly to defensive back Tino Thomas as he rolled to his right in the fourth preseason practice.
"The thing our quarterbacks can't do is they can't make catastrophic plays," Jones said. "Sometimes a punt is the best play because it's the only play. So much of football is managing the game and field position and understanding, 'Hey, it's third-and-9, get the ball to my check-down [for] 4 yards and let's punt the football. We just added to playing great defense.'
"He hasn't had the catastrophic plays that he had early. He's taking care of the football, and that was a great thing to see today, making the quarterbacks live and being able to do that. There's one thing when you go back there and you know you're not going to get hit, but [it's different] now when you know you're going to get hit. I also wanted to see if the quarterbacks could extend plays with their legs."
Though Ferguson appears to be making a push and Worley continues to handle himself like the starting quarterback, Jones insists all four players are "right there," and he wants more leadership from all of them.
"I'm just trying to find the best quarterback who manages our offense and who puts us in the best situations to win football games," Jones said. "It doesn't matter if he's a freshman or a sophomore or a junior -- it doesn't matter. We're going to put the best players on the field that are going to help us win.
"We're a long ways away from naming a starting quarterback. I do think all four of them are getting better and better and better, and I think that's because of the competition. They can't take a play off. They walk into the meeting room, and if they're not bringing their mentally, they're going to get passed up. I think that has elevated everyone's game."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.