NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There is an old adage in football that says if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.
To hear second-year Tennessee football coach Butch Jones tell it, the Volunteers actually have four quarterbacks. And just whom among that quartet will take the opening snap against visiting Utah State (Aug. 30) is the most pressing question, as the Volunteers began spring football practice Friday in Knoxville.
That decision may not come during spring drills, culminating with the annual Orange & White Game on April 12 at Neyland Stadium. Instead, it might occur during the dog days of preseason camp in August.
"We will chart, film and evaluate everything," says Jones of the process of deciding amongst senior Justin Worley, sophomore Joshua Dobbs, third-year sophomore Nathan Peterman and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson.
"We will evaluate how they are in team meetings, in the classroom and how they perform in individual drills," Jones added. "Every rep is a valuable rep. You don’t know how many reps you are going to get, so you better make sure you make the most of every single rep.
"Every rep is for a championship. Each rep is for becoming the starting quarterback."
This time last year, Jones entered spring drills with the same question, as he assumed control of a program that endured three straight losing campaigns under former Vols coach Derek Dooley (2009-11). Eventually, Worley won the job amongst the same three hopefuls, starting seven games and playing in eight before missing the last four outings with a thumb injury.
Playing behind a seasoned offensive line — but with inexperienced wide receivers and average rushing attack — Worley completed 109 of 196 passes (55.5 percent) for 1,239 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight INTs. He is the most experienced of the QB bunch and considered the early favorite to claim the job in 2014.
When Worley went down last season, Dobbs became just the eighth true freshman to start for the Volunteers. Playing in five games with four starts, he completed 72 of 121 passes (59.5 percent) for 695 yards and two TDs, but he also tossed five interceptions.
Dobbs also rushed for 189 yards — the most for a Vols quarterback since Tee Martin in 1999 (317 yards).
After redshirting in 2012, Peterman played in four games and started one last season, but was slowed after breaking his hand when Worley was benched. He subsequently started against Florida in September, but would only play sparingly after that.
Coach Jones opted not to play Ferguson in the Vols’ 5-7 campaign, leading many to believe he’s the quarterback of the future — if not sooner — after having a year of eligibility preserved.
"The quarterbacks have all added the weight and muscle mass that they needed," Jones said. "This gives them improvement in arm strength. I think a full year in our system of understanding their reads, progression and the standard of expectations of leadership will help them.
"They understand the demands with this position. I see them making tremendous strides. I am excited to put a football in their hands and see how far they have progressed since this past season."
Of course, quarterback is not the only pressing issue for a once-proud program that’s going through an unprecedented stretch of losing. Four straight losing seasons and no bowl appearances don’t sit well with Vols fans, but they have been energized by Jones nonetheless.
A large part of that comes from huge successes in recruiting the past two years. The incoming class of 32 signees was ranked fourth nationally by Scout.com, and it includes several freshmen expected to have immediate impact, especially at skilled positions. Fourteen of the signees enrolled at mid-term and are participating in spring practice.
Freshman tailback Jalen Hurd, a prized recruit out of Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech, joins senior Marlin Lane (584 total yards, four TDs) in the backfield.
Sophomore Marquez North is a budding star at wide receiver, where the Vols are in flux after junior Pig Howard, last season’s receptions leader, was suspended indefinitely. Freshman Josh Malone, another recruit out of Gallatin (Tenn.) Station Camp, could make an immediate impact at receiver.
Also departed are a dozen offensive and defensive linemen, including the entire starting offensive front that featured bookend tackles Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and Ja’Wuan James — both projected as early-round picks in the NFL draft.
As such, quarterback might be the pressing question, but offensive line is the biggest concern.
"There is a recruiting class where there are no recruited offensive linemen in the entire class. We are still down a recruiting class," Jones says. "Normally, you want to have about 15 offensive linemen on scholarship, and I believe we are at nine or 10."
Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt are not only defensive leaders, but the team, as well. Like most positions, the Vols will be young, but talented in the secondary.
"I think in moving forward, you can’t assume anything," Jones said. "It’s the small details. It’s the meticulous attention to details that we must have. We always talk about as a teacher, our messaging must be clear, clean, concise and direct.
"We have to do that, and we have to rely on our older players to nurture our younger players along."
Aiding that process, all nine assistants returned to the staff this season — including offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and defensive coordinator John Jancek. Jones feels that continuity is paramount to a program that will rely on a bevy of inexperienced players early in the year.
"It’s huge," Jones said of complete staff retention. "You can’t put a value on it because it’s so significant. You win with consistency and continuity, consistency and messaging. We have a term in our football family called ‘all-aligned.’
"Everyone must be all-aligned in everything they say. If you go speak to our receptionists, if you go speak to our trainer, our equipment personnel, our coaches, our strength staff, they all speak the same language. We are all on the same page."
Indeed, it will be an interesting spring as the Volunteers try to regain the national prominence of 16 years ago, when Tennessee captured the first BCS championship. And for an up-and-coming program, it all comes back to stability at quarterback.
"Has there been a timetable set on who our starting quarterback is?" Jones asked and soon answered. "No, there are no timetables. That person will emerge. I don’t know if it is the second week of spring, after the conclusion of the Orange and White Game or a week prior to Utah State.
"That will take care of itself. Right now, they just have to work on making themselves better individually every day and being a leader. They have to prove that they can win at Tennessee."