Tennessee coach Butch Jones gives instruction during the team's first spring NCAA college football practice on Friday, March 7, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Paul Efird)
KNOXVILLE — The presence of four healthy quarterbacks gives Tennessee coach Butch Jones reason for optimism that the Volunteers could have better results this season.
Three of the four scholarship quarterbacks on Tennessee’s roster got hurt last season as the Vols ended up starting three players at the position. All four quarterbacks are back this year and were fully healthy Friday as the Vols kicked off spring practice.
“I’ve never been through a year like we were last year, with the injuries at that position,” Jones said. “Competition is extremely healthy.”
Senior Justin Worley, sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson are competing for the starting spot in a wide-open competition.
Jones hasn’t set a timetable on when he will choose a starting quarterback. Jones said he’d decide on a starter whenever someone emerges as the clear-cut choice, whether that occurs later this spring or the week of the Aug. 30 season opener with Utah State.
Worley opened the 2012 season as the starter and completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Worley led Tennessee to a 4-3 record in his seven starts before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right thumb. Worley says he’s now back at 100 percent.
“We had a great first day of practice,” Worley said. “We were light years beyond where we were Day One of last year.”
Dobbs replaced Worley in the last four games and completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 695 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions. Dobbs also rushed for 189 yards and a touchdown on 38 carries. Tennessee went 1-3 in his four starts, and Dobbs believes he benefited from the game experience.
“It’s helped a lot in just seeing things and just knowing what’s going to happen,” Dobbs said. “Game experience is extremely valuable, and practice experience is the same thing. It’s great to have film to go back and watch to see what I need to improve on and work on that.”
Peterman started a 31-17 loss to Florida before injuring his throwing hand. He played as a backup in two other games and finished the season 10 of 23 for 45 yards with two interceptions.
“I’m really trying to make better decisions,” Peterman said. “I hope that shows on film, and I hope I have improved.”
But the candidate creating the most intrigue is Ferguson because he’s the one contender who didn’t play at all last season.
Ferguson appeared to be ahead of Dobbs in the quarterback pecking order early last season. But when Worley got hurt last season, Ferguson was unable to step in because he had a leg injury that prevented him from playing. That allowed Dobbs to get four games of starting experience while Ferguson took a redshirt.
“I feel like I have really good command,” Ferguson said. “Being out last year, I think that helped me a lot in just preparing and learning the playbook more and just off the field working with players and getting the chemistry down.”
As he selects a starting quarterback, Jones wants to see more explosiveness from his offense..
“Our passing game needs a lot of improvement,” Jones said. “We all know that. It (starts) with being able to make big plays. Big plays were almost non-existent last year. Today we had some big plays against some quality players. That makes us very optimistic, but again, it’s relatively very, very (early), but we have to make big plays and I think we have some individuals now who are capable of making big plays.”