KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's quarterback situation appears to be a little murky heading into Saturday night's visit from fourth-ranked Alabama.
Starter Justin Worley was unable to finish last week's loss to Ole Miss after hurting his shoulder, and the Volunteers have been coy about his status for the game against the Crimson Tide.
"It's ongoing right now," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Wednesday night on his radio show. "We'll have to make a decision here later in the week with Justin's status. The great thing for us is the way we practice all of our quareterback get equal reps in practice."
The senior Worley has felt the brunt of the 30 sacks Tennessee's allowed this season, and he's had a few close calls with injuries in some games earlier this season.
He took nearly 20 hits at Oklahoma, missed a few series in the second half at Georgia after taking a helmet to his throwing elbow and was limping around some in the win against UT Chattanooga, and that was before he left the loss to the Rebels with nearly seven minutes left in the game.
The brief periods of Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices didn't include any where the quarterback threw any passes, so it's tough to gauge where Worley is with his health. The injury could be worse than the Vols are letting on. The Vols also could be displaying a little gamesmanship, too.
The options behind Worley are Nathan Peterman, who didn't last a half in a start at Florida in 2013 and was 4-of-9 for 20 yards against Georgia in September in his most extensive action, and Josh Dobbs, who started the last four games of last season and struggled throwing the ball in preseason practice.
"Those guys are doing a good job," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said after Wednesday's practice. "We always stress to all of our players - quarterbacks obviously included - to prepare if you're a starter.
"The approach never changes for them, and when you approach day to day with an intensity to improve, and you never know when you're number's gonna get called, they've continued to progress throughout the season."
That's what Jones called the injuries to two starters with which the Vols are dealing on their maligned offensive line.
Left guard Marcus Jackson (leg) practiced minimally on Wednesday, while freshman right tackle Coleman Thomas (ankle) did not. Jones said Wednesday night he "would probably not anticipate" Thomas playing against Alabama.
After practice, offensive line coach Don Mahoney suggested that senior Jacob Gilliam, who is playing through a torn ACL he suffered in the season opener against Utah State, would slide into Thomas's spot up front.
The Vols also could flip starting left tacke Kyler Kerbyson to the right side and plug Brett Kendrick in at left tackle after the redshirt freshman impressed when thrown into action at Ole Miss last week.
"His mental state is really good in terms of understanding what we're doing," Mahoney said. "He's one of the smarter guys in the room, and he does a good job of that. The confidence is in his play has been really good with what he's been able to do in practice. Now it's got to translate into the game."
If Jackson can't go, Dylan Wiesman likely would slide into a starting spot ahead of former Bradley Central High School standout Austin Sanders, who "struggled with some things," Mahoney said, when he replaced Jackson against Ole Miss.
Malone makes a move
After quiet games against Florida and UT Chattanooga, freshman receiver Josh Malone re-emerged with five catches for a career-high 75 yards against Ole Miss, a performance that included him going up high over the middle and holding onto a catch while taking a big hit.
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni has been stressing weekly improvement to his promising young wideout, and after Malone "sputtered" against Florida, Azzanni believes he has resumed his progress.
"He had a good game. He really did," Azzanni said. "I was really happy with Josh's performance. There's still a lot of things as a young guy that I want him to do better, but as far as playing fast and being physical off the line and catching the ball in traffic - he did all those things. I was proud of him."
Defensive end Derek Barnett had one of his tackles for loss against Ole Miss last week retroactively changed to a sack, which gave him three for the game and four for the season. He is the first freshman to record three sacks in a game in Tennessee history. Barnett is second in the SEC behind Missouri's Shane Ray with 9.5 tackles for loss.