Tennessee football practice on April 9, 2013
Tennessee isn’t sure who its next starting quarterback will be. But it knows who he won’t be.
He won’t be Marcus Mariota, Oregon’s Heisman Trophy candidate.
And he won’t be Aaron Murray, Georgia’s Heisman Trophy candidate.
Or AJ McCarron, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy candidate.
As if UT fans weren’t apprehensive enough after three consecutive losing seasons, now they have to deal with uncertainty at the sport’s most important position. The uncertainty is exacerbated by the competition.
Tennessee’s five most formidable opponents have few quarterback concerns. Aside from the aforementioned Heisman candidates, there’s also Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had his SEC coming-out party against UT last September. And South Carolina proved last season it could win with either Connor Shaw or Dylan Thompson, who both return at quarterback.
None of those names come to mind for comparative purposes when examining UT’s current state of quarterback affairs. Nor do the two principals remind you of UT’s previous quarterback, Tyler Bray, who — despite his shaky moments in tight games — could at least throw passes that caught the eyes of NFL scouts.
Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman reminded you mainly of each other in Saturday’s spring scrimmage. Both struggled.
The critiques of their struggles will resonate until another Saturday scrimmage presents them with a second chance. If there’s a repeat performance, UT fans will begin pondering the second coming of Matt Simms, who had the thankless task of steering coach Derek Dooley’s first Tennessee offense through a gauntlet of national championship contenders in 2010.
Once the heavyweights had finished using the Vols for a punching bag, Simms was summoned to the bench, and the offense flourished with true freshman Bray at the helm against lighter fare. Now, you have to wonder if the competition might unfold similarly in coach Butch Jones’ first season.
Two promising newcomers, Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, will join the quarterback competition in the preseason. And the schedule is again favorable in November compared with September or October.
But it’s too early to dismiss Worley or Peterman, given their disadvantages.
Both have had to assimilate a new offense. They also haven’t had the luxury of throwing to last season’s top four receivers, all of whom will pursue pro possibilities. The receiving corps has been further depleted by injuries.
Jones asked a reporter after Tuesday’s practice if he might be available for receiving duties. Such pass-catching humor is likely lost on Worley and Peterman, who are trying to find their way to the starting job amidst the unenviable circumstances.
Although UT’s offensive line should be one of the best in the SEC, the running game is questionable at best. So is the defense. And the schedule includes back-to-back September games at Oregon and Florida, two of college football’s most hostile venues.
Worley has had the preponderance of snaps with the first-team offense this spring. He’s also the only UT quarterback with game experience at this level. That’s enough to qualify him as the favorite to start the season opener.
But, as Simms can tell you, starting the season as Tennessee’s quarterback doesn’t assure you of finishing it.