KNOXVILLE – Tennessee head coach Butch Jones unofficially made it a four-man race at quarterback at the end of spring when he didn’t name Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman the starting quarterback.
It became official on Friday as the Vols opened fall camp with Worley and Peterman now battling incoming freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson for the starting nod when Tennessee opens against Austin Peay on Aug 31.
Day 1 consisted mainly of technique training and running plays against air, but the buzz still centered on the QB race.
“They looked like freshmen,” Jones said Friday evening after the Vols went through their first workout at Haslam Field. “I think the speed of the game, I think everything was happening very, very fast for them. Kind of what we expected.
“I thought Peterman and Worley showed good poise. I thought they showed a lot confidence from having the spring, but I still need more leadership. I still need more take charge, more assertiveness from them.”
Accuracy was a big concern for Jones across the board after the first practice. Errant passes and dropped balls were big issues in the spring, and though some progress was noticeable Friday night, footballs were still ricocheting around the field too much for a team hoping to compete in the SEC.
“[Accuracy was] not where it needs to be on all fronts,” Jones added. “We chart balls on the ground. We had 66 footballs on the ground today and that’s too many. To be an efficient football team you can have maybe 15-18 balls on the ground. It’s a starting point. It’s an opportunity to get that number. Last year [at Cincinnati] we had maybe in the mid-60s at the beginning of training camp and we got it down to 15-18.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was more generous in his praise of the two newcomers.
“They’re further along, from a mental standpoint, than any freshmen I’ve ever had,” he said. “Physically, they’re both very talented. It should be really interesting to see how they progress. They stepped in their reps and in a lot of ways managed the offense like veterans.
Worley, who is listed as the co-starter on the initial depth chart with Peterman, feels that all four will get their chances as camp progresses.
“With the two freshmen coming in, we’re definitely splitting up the reps a little bit to incorporate them, but everybody’s getting them," said the junior quarterback, who is the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a collegiate snap.
That’s how it will go until one begins to separate from the pack – something Jones and Bajakian hopes will happen before the Vols play the Governors at the end of the month.
"We'll keep shuffling until a guy steps up,” Bajakian added. “So, we'll evaluate the video, rate each guy – Justin, Nathan, Josh and Riley, all of them. As they demonstrate a grasp of what we're doing, then they'll get more reps."
Earning their stripes: All of the newcomers were sporting a black stripe on their helmet on Friday night.
It’s another way for Jones to motivate his players, especially the new ones who have yet to prove themselves.
“That is part of the big brother program,” Jones explained. “When they've earned their stripes, their big brother will come up and rip that off of the helmet because they've earned it."
Newcomer notes/observations (offense): The Vols weren’t in pads Friday night, but here are some first-glance impressions of the newcomers on offense this fall:
• TE A.J. Branisel: He’s thick and runs well – a little bit reminiscent of junior Brendan Downs. Looks like he could grow into a balanced tight end.
• QB Joshua Dobbs: He’s all of 6-foot-3 and has a decent frame that could hold some more weight. Has a good throwing motion, but didn’t throw enough deep passes in the open portion of practice for observers to get a great feel for his accuracy and arm strength.
• QB Riley Ferguson: He’s about the same size as Dobbs and also has a good, over-the-top release when he throws. Still too early to get a great feel for his overall game, though.
• WR Ryan Jenkins: He’s a touch on the short side, but he’s very well built. Receivers coach Zach Azzanni said he’s a little behind the other newcomers because he didn’t come until the second summer school session.
• WR Johnathon Johnson: Small – definitely a slot receiver. Appears to have good athleticism.
• OL Brett Kendrick: Needs to add a little more bulk, but certainly looks like a player who could be an SEC tackle before too long. He worked as the second-team left tackle on Friday.
• WR Marquez North: Probably the offensive newcomer who caught my eye the most. He looks like an SEC receiver physically and looks like he could grow into a top target. He rotated in with the second team on Friday night at outside receiver.
• TE Woody Quinn: Jones called him out a few times over the microphone, but he certainly looks the part. He looked very natural for a player who has only played a few years of football.
• OL Austin Sanders: He’s got a good frame, but needs to bulk up some before being ready to contribute. He wasn’t getting in the two-deep very much initially.
• WR Josh Smith: He’s thin, but looks athletic and has fantastic hands. He could be a wildcard at wide receiver. It looks like he'll play at one of the outside receiver spots.
• OL Dylan Wiesman: He’s stocky and very thick. Has the look of a guy who could step in at guard within a year or two.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga