The quarterback competition has understandably been the newsiest theme of Tennessee’s preseason training camp. And no one is more aware of that than first-year coach Butch Jones.
So when he complimented freshman quarterback Riley Ferguson on Friday, he quickly put his assessment in perspective for the assembled media.
“He’s not the starting quarterback,” said a coach wary of runaway headlines.
Two weeks short of the season opener, UT still hasn’t eliminated any one of four quarterback candidates, which means it has made less progress in that regard than any other team in the SEC.
But as significant as the choice might be, there’s another quarterback issue worth noting: opposing quarterbacks versus Tennessee’s pass defense.
When the Vols opened preseason camp, it was natural to assume their pass defense would be improved after giving up more touchdown passes and registering fewer sacks than any other SEC team last season.
One plus: safety Brian Randolph was back, after suffering a season-ending injury last September.
Another plus: Sal Sunseri, last year’s defensive coordinator, was not back.
And another: A general belief that a new coaching staff would do more with the same old players.
However, when you take a hard look at Tennessee’s defense right now — and the competition coming its way — those pluses don’t loom as large.
The Vols seem terribly vulnerable at cornerback, where they’re counting on true freshmen for depth.
And you still have to wonder who will provide the outside pass rush.
The status of defensive end Jacques Smith is in doubt for the season opener after he underwent surgery to repair a broken thumb. But he should be ready at least by the second game.
His health isn’t the biggest concern.
The former No. 1 prospect in the state of Tennessee has never been a consistently productive player. And he’s running out of time.
So is senior Marlon Walls, the other stating defensive end.
In three seasons, Smith has a grand total of 4.5 sacks. In 31 career games, including five starts, Walls has one sack.
UT’s lack of a pass rush and its vulnerabilities in coverage likely will be exploited by a schedule that includes some of the best quarterbacks in the country, starting with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
Later, the Vols will have to deal with Georgia’s Aaron Murray, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, and Alabama’s AJ McCarron. The three quarterbacks combined to complete 73.8 percent of their passes for an average of 316 yards per game against Tennessee last season.
Also, UT opponents with quarterback questions have made progress this preseason.
James Franklin has held on to his starting job at Missouri, and supposedly looked more like the star player of 2011 than the one handicapped by injuries last season.
Auburn’s two quarterbacks with starting experience have both been passed this preseason by junior college transfer Nick Marshall and freshman Jeremy Johnson.
Austyn Carta-Samuels, Vanderbilt’s new starting quarterback, has had an impressive preseason. He could turn out to be an upgrade over departed starter Jordan Rodgers.
Maybe a competent quarterback eventually will emerge for the Vols, too. But that won’t resolve their other quarterback problem.