With about three dozen former Tennessee players watching from the sidelines, the quarterback competition between Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman began in earnest Saturday when the Volunteers opened spring practice. Worley and Peterman will have company this summer when incoming freshmen Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson arrive on campus, so the identity of Tennessee's starting quarterback likely won't be known for quite some time.
"I think it's pretty wide open," Peterman said. "Me and Justin know that, I think. We're just trying to make sure everything's the best for the team and that whoever's the starting guy, we're going to win some games."
Peterman and Worley are competing for the opportunity to replace Tyler Bray, who entered the NFL draft after throwing for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns his junior season.
During a Friday news conference previewing spring practice, new Tennessee coach Butch Jones called the quarterback competition "an ongoing process (from practice) 1 through 15 and then into the summer months." Jones detailed Saturday what he's seeking from his quarterback.
"The overall ability to take care of the football, that's first and foremost," Jones said. "They're the caretaker of the football. (They need) a command presence in everything that we do, the alpha male, the individual who has enough poise to slow things down, make sure we're in the right formation. (They need) a confidence level and the ability to execute and run our offense and manage the game and understand situational football. There's so much that goes into a split-second decision."
Worley, who will be a junior this fall, is 63-of-110 passing for 738 yards with five interceptions and one touchdown pass in nine career games. He made three starts in place of an injured Bray during the 2010 season. Peterman will be a redshirt freshman this fall.
It's too early in the competition for either Worley or Peterman to separate himself. That makes it tempting to note whether the distinctions between the two candidates give either player the edge.
For instance, Worley was one of only three players chosen to speak at Friday's news conference. He downplayed the notion that it indicated he was the front-runner.
"I don't think there's a whole lot to read into," Worley said. "I'm a junior this coming year. That plays a big part of it. I've seen what it's like on the field before, and I know the ropes. I think that's about all you can take out of it."
While Worley has more experience, Peterman has more familiarity with Jones' staff. When Jones was coaching Cincinnati, he tried recruiting Peterman to play for the Bearcats.
Peterman also is more mobile than Worley, and dual-threat quarterbacks often shine in Jones' spread attack. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian emphasized that passing prowess matters more than running ability.
"The reality of the position is first and foremost they need to be able to throw the football," Bajakian said. "What we put on their plate in the pass game is the most important thing. ... That's the bottom line. Their ability with the ball in their hands is secondary."