KNOXVILLE - It may not be the biggest concern for Tennessee's football program as it prepares to start spring football.
It's easily the biggest storyline, though.
The four-quarterback competition that dominated preseason practice last August resumed shortly after being interrupted by the 2013 season, during which the Volunteers were forced by injuries to use three guys at the position.
"I'm excited, because it's going to be a heck of a quarterback battle all spring," coach Butch Jones said following the Vols' 2013 season finale nearly three months ago.
When Tennessee has its first practice of spring a week from today, the battle among rising senior Justin Worley, sophomore Josh Dobbs, redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson and third-year sophomore Nathan Peterman will continue, though it will move from the weight room and voluntary work to the practice field.
The Vols have open spots all across the field, but the most important one is at quarterback.
Who's back: Justin Worley (109-for-196 passing for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games in 2013), Josh Dobbs (72-of-121 for 695 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions, and 189 yards rushing and one touchdown in five starts), Nathan Peterman (10-of-23 for 45 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in four games) and Riley Ferguson (redshirted).
Who's gone: Nobody, though Worley is coming off thumb surgery that ended his season late last October.
Who's new: The Vols did not sign a quarterback in the 2014 class after adding Dobbs and Ferguson in 2013.
Coming soon: Coach Butch Jones went "back and forth" on signing a quarterback for 2014, ultimately electing not to. "I feel very comfortable with the quarterbacks that we have in our football program right now," he said on signing day. "We needed big bodies. ... I felt we have very good youth at that position."
IN THE MIX
Just moments after Tennessee beat Kentucky 27-14 in Lexington to finish last season, Jones promised an open competition at quarterback, and the Vols will start spring practice with a wide-open four-man battle. Worley edged out the other three to win the job last August and, after retaking his job when he lost it for one game, led Tennessee to an upset of South Carolina and a near-upset of Georgia. When Worley left the Alabama game with a thumb injury that required surgery, Dobbs, then the only healthy quarterback on the roster, stepped in and finished the season. The cerebral dual threat, who's added 30 pounds since he arrived on campus last summer, played like a freshman but flashed some of his skills and certainly gained valuable experience that should help his development. Peterman's lone start resulted in a disastrous first half at Florida and ensuing thumb surgery, and how well he's recovered from that afternoon will determine how he handles the competition.
ONE TO WATCH
That's the only quarterback Tennessee didn't use last season: Ferguson. The Charlotte resident likely would have replaced Worley ahead of Dobbs in Tuscaloosa if not for a fractured tibia suffered in practice. Given Tennessee's struggles at quarterback last season, Ferguson is the most intriguing of the quartet, simply because what he brings to a game setting isn't known. He consistently demonstrated in practice last year that he has the strongest arm of the Vols' options at the position, and he's a good enough athlete to handle some of the quarterback runs that are part of the Vols' power spread offense. Tennessee's coaches liked the future for both Dobbs and Ferguson, and the latter is a wild card in the race this spring.
How will Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian handle a four-way competition? Splitting reps among four guys is not ideal, but the staff may want to keep the competition going for as long as possible to make all four players better. How will a post-spring depth chart look at the position, if Tennessee even releases one? The Vols left last spring with no named starter, though at that point Dobbs and Ferguson hadn't arrived yet. Worley was named the starter just a week before the opener last August, though he took most of the first-team reps all during the preseason. One thing is for sure: Jones and Bajakian will evaluate every throw and every rep each of the four quarterbacks makes and takes this spring. Wherever Tennessee ends its quarterback competition come mid-April, the battle certainly will be worth monitoring on a daily basis and serves as the offseason's biggest storyline.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org