KNOXVILLE – In a way, Tennessee’s season changed on one throw Justin Worley made against South Carolina on Oct. 19.
The junior quarterback, firmly entrenched as the starter at that point, banged his hand on a South Carolina defender’s helmet. Worley finished that game with little issue and started last week at Alabama, albeit after wearing gloves in practice during the week of preparation.
He re-aggravated the injury against the Tide in the first half and didn’t return for the second, leaving the final two quarters to true freshman Joshua Dobbs, who showed promise in his limited action.
Now what seemed to be a stabilized position has been thrown into flux.
"However long it takes – it could go all week,” UT coach Butch Jones said of when Tennessee will know who its starting quarterback will be at Missouri this week. “I never put a time frame on anything. It is how they develop. We are going to play the individual who gives us the best opportunity to win on Saturday."
And that individual could be any scholarship quarterback on Tennessee’s roster. Jones listed Worley as day-to-day as he has his hand further evaluated. Dobbs is certainly an option after he had his potential redshirt burned in the second half at Alabama. Riley Ferguson, another true freshman quarterback, is also in the mix despite currently being a walking boot as a precautionary measure.
Though Jones didn’t tip his hand, Dobbs might be the logical choice. The only 100-percent healthy quarterback currently on the roster, the former four-star recruit got valuable experience in the second half in Tuscaloosa. He also brings an added element in the run game that Worley doesn’t.
A 4.0 student in high school and an aeronautical engineering major at UT, Dobbs also brings that intelligence to the football field, according to Jones.
“I think he has a photographic memory,” Jones said of Dobbs. “He is extremely bright, he is competitive, so we don't have to scale down the playbook one bit with him.”
The wildcard? That would be Nathan Peterman – the redshirt freshman quarterback who was last seen during a disastrous debut at Florida on Sept. 21, a game in which he also broke his thumb. Peterman completed just 4-of-11 passes for 5 yards and threw two interceptions in his first career start against the Gators.
Jones had no problem bringing him back into the quarterback discussion now that he’s close to healthy again.
“Nate Peterman has been outstanding in our position meetings,” said Jones, who also confirmed that Peterman is out of his cast now. “He is an individual who has been out for several weeks, but you would never know it with his preparation. He is in there filling his notebook in the meetings. That is extremely healthy for a football program and that position."
Whoever is under center will be on the road, facing the No. 10 team in the nation and also a squad that is tied for third nationally with 15 interceptions on the season. Ball security will be crucial if the Vols are going to have a chance to pull off their first road win since 2010.
"They're very, very athletic and very, very physical,” Jones said of the Tigers defense. “They play with great instincts. They brake and drive on the football, and again they're athletic. Missouri has tremendous team speed."
Injury update: Jones said that safeties Byron Moore (ankle) and Brian Randolph (shoulder), who both missed time in the Alabama game, should be available this weekend at Missouri.
Freshman linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who has been working at linebacker this season, will get some reps at safety this week with Moore and Randolph both less than 100-percemt
Jones also said the Vols are still waiting to hear from the NCAA on the status of defensive tackle Maurice Couch, who hasn’t played since Week 2 after he reportedly accepted impermissible benefits from a representative of an agent last year.
TV update: Tennessee will play Auburn at noon ET on ESPN on Nov. 9. The Vols play Missouri this Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga