KNOXVILLE - Josh Dobbs now has a reference point to use during his offseason work.
The freshman played the best game of his four-game stint as Tennessee's starting quarterback, throwing for 199 yards and two touchdowns and adding a 40-yard touchdown in the Volunteers' season-ending win at Kentucky.
Dobbs particularly found a rhythm on a scoring drive in the third quarter, when he was sharp and accurate on throws to Johnathon Johnson and Devrin Young as Tennessee extended its lead to 27-7.
"He was confident at times, he set his feet and he delivered the throw, especially to Devrin Young on the third-and-long of coming out [and] the touchdown pass to Devrin," first-year coach Butch Jones said Saturday night after the game. "There was a lot of key plays in the game, and I thought Josh stepped up. He also gave us a boost running the football as well."
Against Vanderbilt, Dobbs threw for only 53 yards and tossed two interceptions in his first seven passes, which forced Tennessee to basically abandon its passing game. Even without two starting receivers for most of Saturday night's game, the Vols called for more downfield passing plays.
At one point of the season the only healthy quarterback on the roster, Dobbs played through thumb and thigh injuries and wore a sleeve on his right leg.
He admitted he was "a little beat up" and chalked it up to the natural wear and tear of the game.
"I felt pretty good tonight," Dobbs added. "The receivers were doing a great job getting open, working their routes, working their defenders, and the line was doing a great job of giving me time to see the field tonight."
Jones praised Dobbs for his performance and added he's already looking forward to the open competition at quarterback that'll be one of the Vols' biggest offseason storylines.
"He's a tough individual, and we also talk about the mental toughness," Jones said. "He doesn't complain. He doesn't say a word. He just continues to play. Everything is a learning opportunity and so many teaching opportunities and learning opportunities in this football season, but especially tonight. He's going to continue to build upon that toughness.
"I thought it was a great illustration of just continuing to play, and I'm excited, because it's going to be a heck of a quarterback battle all spring."
None of the quarterbacks jumped up and grabbed the job this season, so the race will renew again as the offseason kicks off this week. Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman are coming off thumb injuries, Riley Ferguson will be an intriguing option after redshirting and Dobbs gained some valuable experience in November.
"Everything on this team is competition," Dobbs said, "and you just have to go out and compete every day, so we'll see what happens over the spring."
Linebacker A.J. Johnson was unsure if he played his final game for the Vols on Saturday. The junior, who led Tennessee in tackles for the second straight year, said he's not given much thought to whether he'll enter the NFL draft or return for his senior year.
"I was just playing the season out," he said after a nine-tackle game. "I'm not sure on it yet."
Johnson did say he'll sit down with Tennessee's coaches and his family and decide on his future, though he provided no timetable for a decision.
Left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, another possible early entrant for Tennessee, did not speak to the media after the game, even though he was on the list of requested players.
"We'll sit down and we'll speak a little bit more as everything goes," Jones said. "Everyone has to make individual [decisions] for themselves, but also, we have to educate them on where they would go, too. We'll cross that bridge when we get there, and that'll come at some point."
Ja'Wuan James, the Vols' right tackle who was in a similar situation last season, offered no hints about what Richardson, a potential first-round pick, might do.
"I just told him, 'You've got to do what's best for you,'" James said. "You're gonna have a lot of people in you're ear saying, 'You should do this, you should do that.' At the end of the day, you've just got to do what's best for you and live with it, because you make that decision because you're the one that's gonna have to live with it.
"He doesn't talk about it that much, really. He said after the season he was gonna handle it."
Tailback Rajion Neal said the 10 yards he needed to crack 1,000 for the season was on his mind during practice all week. The senior then took his first carry 60 yards for a touchdown and went on to record the fifth 100-yard game of the season.
Neal finished with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, and his career total of 2,163 yards ranks 12th on Tennessee's all-time career rushing list. He passed Charlie Garner and Aaron Hayden with 134 yards against Kentucky.
"To get it the way we did and to keep the momentum that we had, it felt good," he said. "It was perfect. It was well-deserved up front by those guys and the guys on the perimeter that helped me out all year."
For Jones, it's the fourth consecutive season his offense has produced a 1,000-yard rusher.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.