KNOXVILLE – A quarterback battle described as a four-man competition on Monday by coach Butch Jones is already decided for Tennessee.
True freshman Joshua Dobbs will start for the Vols when they travel to face No. 10 Missouri this Saturday, Jones confirmed on Tuesday evening after practice.
Former starter Justin Worley underwent surgery on his right thumb and will be out indefinitely. Jones couldn’t put an exact timetable on it, but estimated Worley will miss in the two-to-four week range. The Vols have four games and one bye week remaining in the regular season.
With Worley on the shelf, Dobbs will become the third true freshman to start a game as Tennessee’s quarterback in the last four years – joining Worley (2011) and Tyler Bray (2010). True freshman Riley Ferguson, who is practicing with a large wrap on his lower right leg, will back Dobbs up at Missouri.
“It’ll be a great challenge for [Dobbs] in a great venue against a great opponent, but I know that he’s looking forward to that,” said Jones.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, who has just returned to the practice field for the first time since breaking his thumb against Florida in September, could also be available on Saturday.
But with Dobbs named the starter, Tennessee’s offense could take on somewhat of a new look. The Vols will certainly miss Worley’s experience, but Dobbs brings a new running threat to Jones’ spread offense.
“It means a lot,” senior tackle Ja’Wuan James said of Dobbs’ mobility. “People have to start respecting the pull [on the zone read]. That ‘Will’ linebacker will have to stay outside or it holds a safety. It helps us out a lot.”
Though Worley had a few rushing attempts thus far in 2013, it clearly was not the best part of his game. Dobbs rushed for over 400 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior in high school last season. He carried three times for 19 yards in his second-half debut at No. 1 Alabama last week.
James also thinks that Dobbs brings a level of focus and preparation rarely seen in a true freshman.
“His overall just maturity,” he said of what stands out about the 6-foot-3, 195-pound signal caller. “I remember having to play as a freshman and he’s more locked in than a lot of his seniors. I think he played well [at Alabama], he didn’t look frightened, he didn’t look scared.”
“He is extremely bright, he is competitive, so we don't have to scale down the playbook one bit with him," added Jones.
• Out: QB Justin Worley, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins
• Non-contact jersey: TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, TE Brendan Downs, S Byron Moore, CB Justin Coleman, WR Drae Bowles, WR Josh Smith, WR Jacob Carter
Peterman practiced with a glove on his right (throwing) hand. He appeared to be unable to take a snap from under center, instead only taking snaps in the shotgun or pistol. Ferguson practiced with his lower right leg heavily wrapped. Alex Bullard (left ankle wrapped) and tight end Brendan Downs (brace on left knee) are other key players who were practicing with some sort of protective gear on.
• Johnathon Johnson worked as the first-team slot receiver in front of Pig Howard during the open portion of practice on Tuesday. Howard worked with the second team. That doesn’t mean that Howard, one of the team’s most reliable targets, will necessarily sit on Saturday, but the coaches clearly want to get Johnson some work with the first team.
• With limited depth at tight end the Vols were also experimenting with some more two-back looks with Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane both in the backfield. Howard also lined up in the backfield in a few situations.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga