KNOXVILLE – Through six spring practice sessions, there’s no clear-cut winner yet in UT’s first true quarterback battle since 2010.
It could stay that way through the rest of spring practice – even into fall camp – with the addition of two true freshman scholarship quarterbacks over the summer.
But there’s some progress in the search for the successor to former quarterback Tyler Bray, who departs Knoxville a year early after opting for the NFL draft.
Junior Justin Worley is taking the vast majority of the first-team snaps during the portion of practice that has been open to the media. Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, who normally runs the second unit but also moonlights with the first group, appears to be right behind him.
"I like where they are,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said after the final practice before the team was let off for a week of spring break. “[Thursday] in particular, I thought they made good decisions. We emphasize in our meeting room, No. 1 leadership ability – and I saw Nate [Peterman] really step up his command presence at the line of scrimmage.”
Bajakian and head coach Butch Jones haven’t let them hide behind their non-contact jerseys all spring. With Peterman calling the signals during a full-pads practice, Jones rewarded the defenses’ effort by making him open to full contact for the D for three plays. Peterman survived any major collision, but Jones’ message was clear: The quarterbacks won’t be permitted to coast through practice.
Both Peterman and Worley bring distinct advantages to the competition. Worley, a former Gatorade National High School Player of the Year from Rock Hill, S.C., brings the experience advantage.
He started three games as a true freshman when Bray went down with a broken thumb and backup Matt Simms struggled to be effective. In a trial that would’ve tested even the most experienced SEC signal caller, Worley faced Georgia, Arkansas and Middle Tennessee in those three starts in addition to a late appearance at Alabama. He saw action in five games as a reserve in 2012
His resulting career stats haven’t been great: 63-of-110 passing for 738 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions. But in a new system, one that focuses on running the offense at an even faster pace than last years's no-huddle attack, Worley is hoping for a new start.
"It's pretty different,” he said. “Right after the plays, basically when the runner is down, our eyes are to the sidelines getting the next play and they're signaling it in. It's a little bit faster than what we did last year."
That system is what gives Peterman his advantage, though.
The more nimble of the two, Peterman ran an almost identical system at Bartram High School in Fruit Cove, Fla. As a highly-touted prep player, Peterman felt enough of a connection with Bajakian that he made Cincinnati [where Jones and his staff were coaching at the time] a finalist in his search.
"Coach Bajakian reminds me a lot of my high school coach,” Peterman said as he recalled his recruitment. “He has a lot of the same things: Attention to detail and a good guy of faith.”
Added Bajakian: “Nathan demonstrated a very strong character; he's a man of faith and did well academically. All those things that go into evaluating a player were evident in Nathan. Then you watch his performance on the field and you're able to see a guy that processes information, gets the different reads in his progressions and can make all the plays on the field.”
The brighter lights of Tennessee and the SEC eventually won out over the Bearcats for his services out of high school. But Peterman considered it providence when, after redshirting last year during a 5-7 campaign in Knoxville, it was Jones and Bajakian who ended up taking the job at Tennessee.
Though he could immediately see his opportunity, the new staff also made it clear to him that, despite the prior connection, he would have to earn any playing time he gets on the practice field.
“They’ve made it clear it’s going to be an open competition,” he said.
And will that competition include incoming freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson? Jones hasn’t ruled it out, but he also recognized that it would be a huge challenge for a first-year player to take on that kind of responsibility.
“It's extremely hard to expect true freshmen to come in and make a difference individually,” Jones said at the beginning of spring practice. “The thing we have to do is focus on the process. Too many people want to focus on the end results. We just need to focus on the process and that's winning tomorrow.”
That’s all Peterman and Worley can do for now. The Vols have nine practice sessions remaining when they return from spring break, including the always important Orange and White Game, which will be played on April 20 this season.
"You definitely have to be on your "A" game day in and day out, especially with Nathan,” Worley said. “Both of us are trying our hardest and giving it all we have to win this spot so we have to come out and show it."
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga