From left, Tennessee quarterbacks Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson and Nathan Peterman take part in the first preseason practice of the year Friday in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)
KNOXVILLE — The black stripes on the helmets of Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson signify the long odds facing the two freshmen in Tennessee’s quarterback competition.
As part of Tennessee’s “Big Brother” program instituted by new coach Butch Jones, in which all the freshmen were assigned a returning player as a mentor, each newcomer had a black stripe across the top of his helmet Friday for the opening of training camp. That included Dobbs and Ferguson.
The idea is that the newcomers must wear those stripes until they’ve earned their stripes.
“They have to earn their stripes in our football program,” a hoarse Jones said after Friday’s workout. “When they earn their stripes, their big brother dictates it, and they’ll come up and pull that stripe off the helmet.”
Junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman currently are together atop Tennessee’s depth chart and have the edge in the battle to start the Aug. 31 season opener against Austin Peay, though Jones hasn’t ruled out the possibility of handing the job to Dobbs or Ferguson.
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic,” Jones said Wednesday during a preseason media luncheon. “Is it difficult? Absolutely.”
It might be particularly difficult in this case.
Jones said he wouldn’t hesitate to pick a starter early in training camp if one candidate has clearly separated himself, which means the two freshmen might not have much time to make their cases. Tennessee also may want to turn to an older quarterback to work with the Volunteers’ inexperienced receiving corps.
Worley started three games in place of an injured Tyler Bray in 2011. Peterman has no game experience, but he did get to learn Jones’ offense this spring while Dobbs and Ferguson were still in high school.
Neither Dobbs nor Ferguson was available for comment after Friday’s practice. Tennessee doesn’t make true freshmen available to the media during the preseason.
“They looked like freshmen,” Jones said. “I think the speed of the game — everything was happening very fast for them. It’s kind of what we expected. Peterman and Worley showed good poise. I thought they showed a lot of confidence from having the spring. But I still need more leadership. I still need more take charge, more assertiveness from them.”
Dobbs threw for 3,625 yards and 29 touchdowns and rushed for 419 yards and 10 more scores his senior year at Alpharetta (Ga.) High. After verbally committing to Arizona State, Dobbs made a signing day switch to Tennessee.
Dobbs’ academic background suggests he might be a quick study. The prospective aeronautical engineering major won the Watkins Award given annually by the National Alliance of African-American Athletes to a high school senior who combines academic and athletic excellence.
Ferguson led Matthews (N.C.) Butler high to state championships two of the past three seasons. He threw for 3,345 yards and 48 touchdowns as a junior and passed for 2,173 yards and 25 touchdowns in just nine games last season.
“They’re further along from a mental standpoint than any freshman I’ve had before,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “Physically they’re very talented. It should be interesting to see how they progress as training camp goes on.”
Jones’ history suggests the quarterback who opens the season as the starter won’t necessarily finish that way.
Last year, Munchie Legaux opened the season as Cincinnati’s starting quarterback and led the Bearcats to six wins in their first eight games. Jones then replaced Legaux with Brendon Kay, who directed Cincinnati to a 4-1 finish.
As he prepares to choose a starter, Jones is seeking more accuracy from all four quarterbacks.
“We chart balls on the ground, and we had 66 balls on the ground today,” he said. “That’s too many. To really be an efficient offensive football team, you can go through a whole practice and maybe have 15-18 balls on the ground. We had 66. But it’s a starting point.”
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