KNOXVILLE — To the untrained eye, an incompletion that ended Tennessee's first offensive series in a 17-13 win over Massachusetts last Saturday looked like an errant pass thrown after a moment of hesitation by quarterback Quinten Dormady.
To coach Butch Jones, the play is an example of why he believes there are "a lot more pressing topics than the quarterback conversation" as the Volunteers (3-1) gear up to face seventh-ranked Georgia (4-0) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
With Tennessee facing a third-and-3 from its own 42-yard-line with 13:54 to go in the first quarter, Dormady cocked the ball behind his helmet and appeared to pump-fake as receiver Marquez Callaway crossed the first-down marker without breaking toward the sideline like Dormady seemed to expect.
Finally, Dormady stepped up and let it fly as Callaway broke to the outside 4 yards beyond the first-down marker. By the time Callaway leaped to attempt the catch, he was 5 yards beyond the first-down marker. The pass, coming from the opposite side of the field, hit his outstretched hand and fell to the ground.
It should have been a simple out route, but it turned into a long incompletion that led to a punt.
"I think it's just something that the average person looks at it and says, 'OK, the quarterbacks,'" Jones said. "You look at Quinten, he was 5-of-8 in the first quarter and 14-of-19 in the first half.
"The play of the quarterbacks are a byproduct of everyone around them."
Callaway, a sophomore who played sparingly last year, is blossoming into a big-play threat in a Tennessee offense relying greatly on young receivers after an injury to leading returning receiver Jauan Jennings. But Callaway and a cast of peers that includes sophomores Brandon Johnson and Tyler Byrd and freshman Josh Palmer are still ironing out the kinks as they embrace their larger-than-expected roles.
"Playing receiver is one of the most difficult positions on the football field," Jones said.
Jones was not critical of Callaway when he pointed out the first-quarter miscue against UMass and did not even refer to him by name. Jones said last week that he likes the attitude and mentality of the receivers and added that he's been receiving text messages from them regarding areas where they want to improve.
"It is a very young room, but a very talented room," Jones said. "I see a steady pace of confidence being born. I've really liked the way that group is progressing. But again, we can't let youth be a crutch. Nobody cares about that. It comes down to, really, the mental effort and mental intensity. And you can't beat yourself. It starts with missed splits and missed assignments."
Another reason why Tennessee's quarterback play remains a topic of conversation this week is because the coaching staff elected to insert backup Jarrett Guarantano for three possessions in the second half Saturday while the Vols led by just four points. The offense sputtered with Guarantano in the game, but the move raised questions about how committed the coaching staff is to Dormady as the heart of SEC play arrives.
"We weren't playing up to our standard," Dormady said Tuesday. "We didn't have enough energy. We were kind of flat. So that was Coach's decision. Like I said going into the season, I'm just here to win games. Whatever the coaches think is best, we'll go with that."
Jones, though adamant that the quarterback is a byproduct of the players around him, acknowledged that there were a couple of times when the staff wanted Dormady to run the football on read-option plays or potential scrambling situations against UMass and he did not.
"Here, there's always things to work on," Dormady said. "That's one of the parts of my game that I guess could go into that category. I think as far as reading it, I've been pretty effective. As far as Saturday goes, I've got to hold on to the ball. But the reads have been fine."
Johnson shared the podium with Dormady on Tuesday as the two answered questions about the offense and the talented Georgia defense they will face Saturday.
Dormady talked about how he needs to turn the ball over less. Johnson noted the receivers will need to play with "a sense of urgency" on the perimeter because of the Bulldogs' pass rush. Dormady also mentioned that he felt the receivers took a step forward against UMass.
"I'm confident going into this game and really I'm just looking to make the most impact I can, honestly, whether that the be on the outside or in the slot," Johnson said. "Wherever they need me, I'm looking to make an impact. Same thing for all the rest of the guys. As receivers, we all just need to make plays."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.