KNOXVILLE -- Justin Worley or Josh Dobbs?
The question is simple, but the solution to Tennessee's quarterback situation is rather complicated, and the Volunteers may want to keep it that way.
Worley is a question mark with the thumb injury that forced him to miss the second half of last week's loss at No. 1 Alabama, and with the injuries to Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson, the other options at the position, true freshman Dobbs may be in line to start when the Vols visit 10th-ranked Missouri on Saturday night.
"It could go all week," coach Butch Jones said Monday. "I never put a time frame on anything. It's how they develop. We're going to play the individual who gives us the best opportunity to win on Saturday."
That might end up being Dobbs, who against the Crimson Tide led Tennessee to a 10-point, 172-yard second half in relief of Worley, whom Jones called "day to day."
Jones said the Vols will find out more on Worley's injury today when the team returns to practice. After what Jones called a "great week" of practice, the junior gritted through a first half in which he aggravated his thumb injury and threw two interceptions. He experimented with gloves to help his grip with the injury in practice last week but played without them.
With the bum thumb affecting Worley's passes, the right leg injury that had the freshman Ferguson limping in practice and in a boot last week and the hand surgery that's sidelined Peterman since his debacle at Florida, Dobbs got the call, but Tennessee didn't have to limit its playbook with him in the game.
"He brings another element in terms of running," Jones said. "If he is our quarterback, you may see a little more quarterback run. He is a 4.0 [grade point average] student. I think he's got a photographic memory. He's extremely bright. He's competitive, so we don't have to scale down the playbook one bit with him.
"It's more execution, playing to whoever our quarterback is, playing to their strengths. If it's running the quarterback more, if it's more deep balls, if it's more 15-yard throws, if it's more break-contain and sprint-outs -- that's going to be the big thing. We always talk about playing to the strengths of whoever the quarterback is."
Though he entered the season fourth in the pecking order at quarterback, Dobbs made some nice throws, ran the ball for good yardage on a couple of plays and managed the offense well other than one instance when Jones called time out with the play clock running down.
Dobbs has struggled throwing accurately in practice, where offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian often stresses the freshman's mechanics, particularly his release point. At 6-foot-3 and 193 pounds, Dobbs looks like a true freshman, but his play certainly warranted a look heading into this week regardless of Worley's health.
"You learn in coaching it's never as good as it seems and it's never as bad as it seems," Jones said. "For a young man, a true freshman coming in that environment against that type of opponent, I thought he was poised, he was calm, he was disciplined, he was able to get us in the right plays offensively and he had a command about himself.
"He walked around to the position groups, and he was confident. Now we need to continue to have that with the week of preparation. ... I thought he performed well under the circumstances."
Tennessee wanted to redshirt one or both of its true freshman QBs this season, and the Vols still may want to keep the redshirt on Ferguson. Peterman's cast is off, but he's still rehabbing the hand, though Jones said there's a possibility the redshirt freshman could be available later in the week. The Vols are approaching the week as if Worley will be available.
The last time the Vols tabbed a freshman to make his first career start on the road ended in disaster, when Peterman had a 31-yard, four-turnover half at Florida. The Tigers don't carry the same name recognition as the Gators do defensively, but Missouri leads the SEC in takeaways. Defensive end Michael Sam leads the league with 10 sacks.
If Dobbs does start, he'll do so with the confidence of his coach and his teammates, who were impressed by his poise.
"You'd never know that he played on Saturday," Jones said. "[He's] the same Josh Dobbs that we see each and every day. The great thing about Josh is you know what you're getting each and every day with Josh. We talk about the straight-line guy: He's never too high or too low. He just comes to work every single day. I take great comfort in being around players like that.
"I always ask our players, 'What are you selling today?' You're either a fountain or a drain. Every day, he's a fountain. He comes in, he has a businesslike approach. He's got a smile on his face. He has some charisma to him."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.