KNOXVILLE – At this point last year at Texas A&M, quarterback Jameill Showers was projected to start for the Aggies.
A little-known redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel was running with the second team and appeared to be destined for a backup role last season.
If you paid any attention to college football last fall, you know that’s not how the story played out. Manziel overtook Showers during fall camp and took the college football world by storm. He led the Aggies to an 11-2 campaign that included a win at eventual national champion Alabama, a 41-13 Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma and a Heisman Trophy for Manziel.
Showers transferred to UTEP after the season.
How does that relate to Tennessee’s quarterback situation heading into the 2013 season? The Vols aren’t likely to win 11 games or have a Heisman-winning quarterback next season, but it does show that a lot can change in a quarterback battle over a summer.
"It is wide open,” head coach Butch Jones said of the quarterback race at the end of spring practice. “Just like every position, it will be open. The growth that a football team can make from May to the end of July can be monumental, if they buy in and work exceptionally hard. Plus, we have our freshmen reporting in June.”
So the fact that Justin Worley worked primarily with the first team this spring and started the Orange and White Game could mean very little as the quarterback battle evolves over the summer and into the fall.
It was difficult to get a great feel for what redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman brings to the competition. Known as the more mobile of the two, Peterman was rarely allowed to go against a live defense this spring. He was sacked multiple times in the Orange and White Game in situations he might’ve escaped from in real action.
Peterman also played behind a far-less experienced offensive line with the second unit and was often throwing to walk-ons due to the rash of injuries at wide receiver.
“Nate was kind of in a challenging situation, so you have to take that into consideration,” Jones said. “Obviously, when we move forward this summer will tell me a lot. I haven’t seen much frustration. He did get excited the one day we made him live. He has been typical of our entire football team. Just tell me what to do Coach and we'll do it. That's why I'm encouraged with what I see with this team."
But as Jones mentioned, the competition will extend beyond Peterman and Worley this summer. Incoming freshmen Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta, Ga., and Riley Ferguson of Matthews N.C., are both scheduled to enroll in June. Dobbs (6-3, 190) is ranked as a four-star prospect by 247Sports. Ferguson (6-3, 195) garnered a three-star ranking.
Charlie High, a 6-foot quarterback from Knoxville who owns numerous national and state passing records, is also set to join the team as a walk-on after turning down offers from smaller schools.
Jones has said he likes to have as many as six scholarship quarterbacks on the roster at a given time, but he’s starting to get the quarterback position to the level he wants to see.
“We have two very outstanding young men coming in,” Jones said of Dobbs and Ferguson. “I think that's going to add to the overall quarterback competition. Charlie High as well. I think the big thing is we're still behind in our scholarship numbers there. We just talked about the quarterback sets the temperament of your program.
"Name me a good football team or a great football team whose quarterback wasn't a great leader. Usually your average to below average teams, the quarterback brings no leadership value. Everything is at quarterback as the coach on the field.”
And Jones hasn’t seen enough yet from any candidate to hand him the keys to his offense and his program as of yet. There’s a decent chance he’ll want to get a good look at all of the freshmen before he makes any decision. True freshman starting quarterbacks are rare, though not unheard of, in the SEC. Former UT quarterback Tyler Bray started five games in that situation in 2010.
Before any proclamation is made, Jones needs to see a lot of growth from his quarterbacks – both those returning and those coming in over the summer.
“Everything needs to be worked on,” he said. “Taking ownership in our receivers, tight ends, running backs and developing that trust and timing. Overall leadership, overall command presence, being the alpha male and understanding that. Growing their leadership, the overall knowledge of the game and letting the game slow down a little bit when it comes to them."
Worley does leave spring as the most experienced and the slight leader at this point in the competition, but there are still over 100 days until UT kicks off the 2013 season. Anything can happen at that position.
Just ask Texas A&M.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga