KNOXVILLE - Three games into the season, Tennessee appears to be reopening its quarterback competition.
Whether that decision by first-year coach Butch Jones and his assistant coaches yields a new starter for Saturday's Southeastern Conference opener at Florida won't be known until the Volunteers complete a week of practice.
Justin Worley has been largely ineffective for Tennessee's transitioning offense, and though the blame can't be placed solely at the junior's feet, his job status now looks to be up in the air.
"Just like any position in our program, it's open, and whatever quarterback has the best week of practice will be the starter for Tennessee when we play Florida," Jones said at his weekly news conference Monday. "If that means a freshman quarterback, that means a freshman quarterback. We'll have more quarterback run into the package this week, and we need to find ways to generate big, explosive plays.
"If that's Josh Dobbs running the read option, or Riley Ferguson, that's what we'll do, but we have to create big plays, and that's going to be a focus in preparation this week."
Should the Vols make a change, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman or one of the true freshmen, Ferguson or Dobbs, would be making his first college start in a hostile road environment against one of the SEC's top defenses.
It's a tall order to ask of a first-time starter, but Jones showed last year at Cincinnati, where he made a quarterback change when the Bearcats were 6-2, that he'll play who he believes gives his team the best chance of winning.
Worley may show that's still him, but Peterman, who was on the field for Tennessee's second touchdown drive in garbage time of Saturday's 59-14 loss at No. 2 Oregon on Saturday, and Ferguson, who has the strongest arm of the quarterback quartet, appear to be next in line ahead of Dobbs, who worked with the scout team last week.
"We may open it up and give more repetitions," Jones said. "Obviously we have to prepare the guys to play in the game ... but you have to earn your spot each and every week. We'll see what the freshmen can handle.
"I think Nate Peterman continues to progress along. It's 6 a.m., and he's the first person in the building every single day. He has a great grasp and knowledge, and I continue to see him getting better. I think Justin's getting better, but I just think competition is healthy, and it's going to be a week-to-week process of who can manage the process the best."
Against Western Kentucky and Oregon, Worley, who's had most of the first-team repetitions since Jones arrived, completed 24 of his 44 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He's struggled with his accuracy and missed on some throws, and Tennessee is tied for 104th nationally with just eight plays of 20 or more yards.
Jones' offense typically uses quarterbacks who are running threats, and Worley is fourth in that category among the Vols' foursome. He had runs of 11, 11 and 6 yards in the opener against Austin Peay, but he's registered only one rush in the past two games. Jones said Worley has the luxury of pulling the ball in the Vols' zone-read running scheme.
The Vols' receiver haven't helped with drops and the inability to get open consistently, and Oregon was able to generate pressure on Worley throughout Saturday's game.
"Everyone wants to look for the quarterback, but the receivers paint pictures for the quarterback," Jones said.
"It's been really hard to judge the quarterback," he added, "just because of all the moving parts and pieces and the different dynamics that we're going through [at receiver]."
Worley has thrown only one interception and shown good command of the offense from a management standpoint. The Vols haven't had avoidable penalties and unnecessary timeouts with him at quarterback. On the road against Florida, those things could be valuable assets.
Jones, though, wants Worley to be more assertive, and he wants a certain flair from whoever is the quarterback.
"I'm talking about going back there and trusting what you see, throwing him open, understanding if the reception point is at 12 yards that's where the ball's going," the coach explained. "I think a number of times what Justin has done is he has waited for the receiver to become open, then he's throwing the football. Anticipatory skills from a quarterback, that's what separates great quarterbacks.
"That's more what I'm looking for and what we're looking for as a staff and what we're looking for in our quarterbacks -- just that aggressiveness, kind of that arrogance. Every great quarterback has that about themselves. They have that it factor."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.