Justin Worley is back as Tennessee's starting quarterback --- both because of injury and performance.
First-year Volunteers head coach Butch Jones announced Monday what VolQuest.com had reported on Sunday; that redshirt-freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman had been injured in the game Saturday at Florida. Peterman underwent surgery Monday morning and will miss an indefinite amount of time but “at least four weeks” according to Jones. Peterman injured his right, throwing hand --- he also suffered a broken thumb during his true freshman season --- and though Jones said the staff had not pinpointed the exact time of the injury at Florida, Peterman may have hurt the hand on the throw-away into the end zone in which the Gators' defense initially appeared to jump into the neutral zone and the Vols ultimately were flagged for offensive pass interference.
“As of right now, Justin Worley is the starter, yes,” Jones said.
Jones, however, emphasized continued competition at both the quarterback spot and elsewhere on the field. With Peterman injured, the Vols now move a pair of true freshman quarterbacks --- Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson --- into the backup roles. Though both players traveled Sept. 14 to Oregon, only Ferguson made the trip to Florida last Saturday.
But Jones said not to read anything into that move and that both rookies would get increased but equal reps this week as the Vols prepare for Saturday's home.
“The way we do things, usually our number two quarterback gets an equal amount of reps as our number one,” Jones said. “A lot of people say how can you have that much time? But you know, it's pretty much the same. It may be a difference of five or six snaps in practice.
“Both freshmen quarterbacks will get ample amount of repetitions, and we have to do a great job of getting them ready to play mentally and then physically as well. Just like anything in our program, they're going to have to earn their spot.”
What must Jones to see to declare either or both freshmen ready to direct the offense?
“I think a confidence level, the ability to manage our offense. That leadership aspect, that command presence, that Alpha male,” Jones explained. “You know, we'll try to simulate as many game-like conditions as possible but as we all know, you can't simulate it until there are people in the stands and it's for real. But the one who makes the least mistakes, the one who doesn't take chances with the football, understands what we're doing, the power of why. Why are we trying to do this? And the ability to take care of the football, which we did not do a good job against Florida. You can not turn the football over; that's in our plan to win.”
An Alpharetta (Ga.) product, Dobbs was a late addition to the Vols' 2013 signing class; he had been committed to Arizona State but was flipped by Jones & Co. the very last week before signing day, in part because the 6-foot-3, 193-pound Dobbs is pursuing an aeronautical engineering major. Ferguson was an Elite 11 participant who threw for more than 5,500 yards and 73 touchdowns as well as winning state championship MVP honors during his final two seasons at Butler (Matthews, N.C.) High School.
Worley relieved Peterman late in the second quarter at Florida and immediately guided the Vols' offense to an opening-possession field goal to start the second half in Gainesville that trimmed the deficit to 17-10. Worley also had a touchdown pass to Alton 'Pig' Howard but threw two interceptions, one a desperation pass at the game's end. But senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James praised Worley's response in a difficult situation at Florida.
“I felt like he did well,” James said. “He remained the same Justin.”
The Vols host South Alabama this week and then entertain nationally ranked Georgia on Oct. 5. The first of Tennessee's two open dates this season follows on Oct. 12 before two more games against ranked opponents; South Carolina visits Neyland Stadium Oct. 19 and the Vols head to defending BCS champion Alabama Oct. 26.
MAGGITT AN EXPECTED NO-GO
There will be no speculation this week on linebacker Curt Maggitt's status for the South Alabama game. Jones made it clear on Monday that he doesn't expect the linebacker to play this week.
“I don't think so,” Jones said when asked if Maggitt would play. “Curt is going to be week to week on how he progress. He's coming off two surgeries and he's really trying. He's still out there. I don't want to come in here and lead everyone on and tell you I think he's ready. I would rather expect the worse and if it happens it happens. Right now I wouldn't count on him playing.”
Maggitt's continued absence on the game field breaks the question of whether or not Maggitt might redshirt and miss the entire season. Jones said nothing was decided at this point, but he certainly left it open as a possibility.
“We will see where we are at as the season progresses,” Jones said. “A lot of it will be dictated by his wishes and his families wishes as well.”
Maggitt is considered one of the Vols' most disruptive defensive forces, but injuries have limited the West Palm Beach, Fla., native to just 20 career games, including 17 starts. Maggitt tore his ACL in the Vols' overtime loss last November at home to Missouri. Of his 86 career tackles, 10.5 of those have been for losses.
PASS RUSHING TAKING STEPS
Getting to the quarterback on something approaching a regular basis has been a point of emphasis for the Tennessee defense since the first day of spring practice under Butch Jones and his new staff.
Four games into the year this group isn’t going to be confused with the 1985 Bears defense any time soon, but it is starting to look like it’s safe to say tangible strides have been made in the ability to get to the quarterback.
Of course, after ranking dead last in the SEC a year ago with just 17 sacks, making improvement wasn’t exactly an unbelievably difficult challenge.
After four games, the Vols have registered six sacks, not an outlandish number by any means, but the defense seems to clearly be showing up in the backfield with more consistency and having an affect on the quarterback.
That was the case at Florida when a Jeff Driskel threw a pick-six to Devaun Swafford while under duress from Marlon Walls. Jones has seen enough to be encouraged, but hardly enough to be satisfied with where the pass rush is.
“It’s better but still a work in progress. We need to do a much better job of using our hands. We use a term called a ‘junction point’ which is your ‘block destruction,’ the ability to get off blocks. We have to do a much better job that way but I did think we were able to apply pressure (at Florida),” Jones said on Monday.
“I felt there were numerous times we impacted the quarterback. I thought we took some steps positively in moving forward.”
Jones noted that he felt Walls ‘played his best football’ against Florida and had been a steady presence for a defensive front that’s been trying to plug various holes during the first month of the season.
Walls was quick to give assistant coach Steve Stripling credit for any progress that’s been made to this point.
“Coach Strip does a great job of teaching the defensive line that we control the line of scrimmage by getting penetration. I think we’re finally starting to get it, that we can really make an impact by just getting up the field and causing havoc in the backfield. I think we’re really starting to take heed to what he’s saying and focusing on getting more penetration,” Walls said of Stripling’s message and the defensive front’s ability to implement that.
It also seems apparent that freshman Corey Vereen is going to live up to the hype he’s received from the coaching staff. Even in limited action at Gainesville (seven snaps) he was a frequent presence in the backfield, narrowly missing a couple of sacks.
Performing at that level in his first college action was noteworthy to say the least.
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