LaDarrell McNeil wasn't on the field. But he had a front-sideline view of the play. 'The Play' that seemed to define, or at the very least highlight, Tennessee's first spring football practice Friday afternoon on Haslam Field.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Ferguson arced a back-shoulder throw to newcomer Von Pearson, the junior college All-America selection who's been on Rocky Top just since early January. Pearson snagged the ball, stutter-stepped starting cornerback Cameron Sutton and coasted to paydirt.
"I wasn't on the field, but I was watching. It was a nice play," said McNeil, a junior safety. "It was
it was good to see that relationship between the wide receiver and the quarterback."
It was the very type of play Tennessee so rarely generated a year ago --- the type that prompted head coach Butch Jones to declare post-practice that his quarterbacks might have completed more passes on this Friday afternoon than at any point a year ago.
Ferguson, the only one without game action, is trying to wedge himself into that mix. Two big tosses to Pearson, as well as another to Jacob Carter, did nothing to dissuade that conversation.
"I liked what I saw on (Ferguson), I liked what I saw in all the quarterbacks," Jones said. "I liked (Ferguson's) quarterback intangibles. He was extremely accurate with the football. He looked very confident. He made some big-time throws today."
While admitting he felt like he could have played last season before suffering a stress-fracture in his right leg that negated him from the quarterback conversation, Ferguson points to increased awareness and comfort in the playbook for allowing him a Day 1 carryover to the field.
"I feel like I have really good command, just being out last year I think that helped me a lot just preparing and learning the playbook more," said the 6-foot-3 Ferguson, who told reporters he's up to 198 pounds. "Just off the field working with players and getting chemistry down."
Ferguson recalls first feeling a comfort in the Vols' playbook perhaps midway through last season, roughly the same time he suffered an injury he said likely stemmed from "over-stressing" his plant leg when dropping back to pass. And though Ferguson isn't now running the same pro-style set he did in high school, he believes Tennessee's system under Mike Bajakian plays to his strengths.
"The fast tempo and catching defenses off guard," Ferguson said of what he most likes about the offense. "So I love lining up and seeing a corner have to run all the way across the field just to match up with my receiver and I can hike the ball before he gets over there and get him the ball quick."
Having a powerful arm, notes senior quarterback Justin Worley, also boosts Ferguson's stature on the field as well.
"He's done a great job of getting in his playbook and starting to understand things. I mean, it's always hard coming in first year. You may not know the little things that go on at the next level, but he's done a great job of picking that up. He's got a big arm, I'll tell you that," said Worley, who's the elder statesman competing for the job but still trying to help his position peers. "He may not be the tallest guy or the strongest guy, but he's got a big arm for what he's showing. He's an exciting player. He's competitive, too. That's a big thing."
Even McNeil and the defensive players see Ferguson both feeding off of and growing from his competitive drive on the field.
"Just his ability to be a leader. (Ferguson) throws the ball pretty accurately," McNeil said. "He gets very frustrated when he throws an interception, but he tries to move past it and keep going."
Up next for Ferguson, and each of the other three combatants in the QB derby --- Worley, Nathan Peterman, Joshua Dobbs --- is a key session early Saturday morning.
"Well, continue to improve. Take care of the football. Now we add a whole other completely set of different installations. The install continues to grow. So now, you can't let the mind tie the feet up," Jones explained. "So now we add some more down and distance components. Today it was normal downs, first-and-10, second-and-8. Now you add in third down. You add in situational football. So the nuances of the game continue to expand as well. Not just with the installation but situational football. Formations, personnel groupings, different tempos of the offense. The volume continues to grow, so now the fundamentals, the small details. That has to become second nature. Everything continues to expand."
With a day-by-day approach, Ferguson believes he'll be ready.
"I'm just trying to get better every day, taking it one day at a time, learning from the other quarterbacks," Ferguson said. "We all learn from each other, so that's what we've been doing throughout all of camp and all through spring.
"I'm just going out and being who I am, playing quarterback. Just working with my teammates every day and getting the chemistry down. And you know, just hoping for the best during spring and then going into the fall."
The absence of football pads did not detract from the physically demanding nature of Tennessee's practice Friday afternoon --- particularly for the Vols' offense. Justin Worley told VolQuest.com that offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian had a shot-clock on his Vols' offense, and when they didn't get the play off before the buzzer sounded, it was charted.
By practice's end, Tennessee had enough "shot-clock" violations that offensive players were doing more than 100 pushups.
"Coach Jake's been stressing playing fast, and when they did some self-evaluations over the offseason I think he would have liked us to have gone faster last year," Worley explained. "And he wants us to go fast, even faster than we've been going. So he puts a shot-clock on every snap and if we don't snap it within that time, they'll blow a siren. We keep playing, but that's just tallied up. Every siren. Or every time we don't get it off, that's 10 pushups after practice. We did over 100 pushups today."
PETERMAN'S HAPPY RETURN
Florida native Nathan Peterman knows what he's known for among Tennessee fans. The redshirt sophomore signal-caller was just 4 of 11 for 5 yards and 2 interceptions in his only start a year ago at Florida.
"It's a part of me honestly, whether it's good or not," Peterman said. "I have accepted it and said it's part of my testimony and it's part of what I have learned from. I think my character has been strengthened from it."
After the disaster in the swamp and the surgery on his broken thumb, Peterman admits there were times of doubt, but he feels that's behind him and he's prepared mentally and physically to compete for the starting job.
"Those six weeks in the cast, there was definitely a lot of time to think," said the 6-2, 221-pound redshirt sophomore quarterback. "I definitely went through a lot of stuff there, a 'find yourself' time. I think I have come back with a confident mentality and nothing has changed. I'm a fighter, and I'm going to go out there and try to prove that I'm willing and able to be here and that I can help this team."
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