March 27, 2014

Separation anxiety: Coaches wait for QBs to break out

Seven practices into spring camp, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian says there's no separation between his four quarterbacks. And the longer that's the case, the bigger problem it presents.

"Everyone has flashed," Bajakian said after practice Thursday. "The word we keep emphasizing is consistency. We don't have the consistency we want, frankly at any position, but particularly at the quarterback position."

Justin Worley, who won the same quarterback battle as the incumbent last August, threw a third-and-11 touchdown pass on the opening drive of the March 14 scrimmage, keeping the play alive by avoiding pressure, rolling right and finding tight end Ethan Wolf running along the boundary.

Later in the scrimmage Worley threw off his back foot while under pressure, floating a red zone interception to LaDarrell McNeil.

There was another red zone turnover Thursday, though Bajakian didn't mention names. But the message was clear: the lack of consistency is limiting the progress, and thus, any separation among the four.

"We'll get there," Bajakian said. "Those guys, I like their approach. They work hard, but we just have to have a consistency in performance that's acceptable when it comes to the position, managing the offense."

Until they find that consistency, Bajakian and the Vols' offensive coaches are finding new ways to manage practice.

It's a problem across the board on offense, with new faces at wide receiver, running back and tight end trying to get reps in practice. But particularly at quarterback, where Worley, Joshua Dobbs, Riley Ferguson and Nathan Peterman continue splitting reps four ways.

"It's very tough," Bajakian said. "It's a hard thing to do. It causes us, beside managing the reps with the quarterbacks, it's also having so many new faces.

"We've been working on some different things, having a different approach and tapered the install a little bit."

After stretching periods early in Thursday's practice, Butch Jones threw his team into a fourth-and-1 situation drill.

Worley got the first down on a quarterback keeper, Peterman handed to freshman running back Jalen Hurd for the first down and Dobbs avoided pressure, rolled right and found early enrollee Josh Malone for the first down at the 4-yard line.

Ferguson, running with the second team, handed to Alden Hill, who was stopped for no gain, giving the defense its only point of the drill.

"They're going to earn their reps, so if they start performing they'll earn their reps," Butch Jones told after Tuesday's practice.

"If individuals are struggling a little bit, we're going to back off their reps. Everything is earned in our program, so they're going to have to earn their repetitions."

Worley continues to be the first quarterback getting those reps, ahead of Ferguson, Dobbs and Peterman.

Thursday's red zone turnover happened during the closed portions of practice.

"Frankly, I've not done a good enough job," Bajakian said. " ... we can't have those mistakes in critical situations; down tight, we're going in. That can change a game.

"That was one thing I did not like from the scrimmage and one thing we still need to improve upon."

The Vols will have their second scrimmage of the spring Saturday morning, and have just eight workouts left in spring camp, including April 12's Orange & White Game at Neyland Stadium.

"They just need to manage the offense," Bajakian said of finding a starter. "I don't think there's a ton of difference in their skillset. It's not like one is a phenomenal passer or one's a phenomenal athlete. They're all good passers and they're all good athletes.

"They just have to do what we're asking them to do: take care of the football, keep the offense in manageable down and distance and manage the offense."

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