March 29, 2014

Vol QBs solid as big plays, 3 turnovers define day

Justin Worley wanted one throw back in his pocket.

Riley Ferguson said roughly the same thing.

Aside from those single interceptions by both Ferguson and Worley, the two Tennessee quarterbacks were part of a solid day as the Vols continued their four-man quarterback battle. Joshua Dobbs fumbled and Nathan Peterman did not turn the ball over as Tennessee ran through a variety of full-go and situational game settings in Saturday's soggy scrimmage inside Neyland Stadium.

Not unnoticed was Butch Jones' decision to once again have all four of his quarterback combatants open for full-contact as Tennessee pushed just past midway through its 15-practice spring camp.

"Well much different," Jones said of having the QBs be open targets. "And so we want them to be able to stand in the pocket. We always talk about being a high-vision quarterback. Playing instinctually. When the pocket collapses can you create plays on your own? Can you generate plays for your offense? And also it's healthy for the defense because a number of times you may assume it's a sack and it doesn't happen. Most big football plays from a defensive standpoint occur when you lose leverage, especially in the red zone. Your point is on the quarterback.

"So to be able to make them live is beneficial for both sides of the football."

Worley again got the opening snaps with the first-team offense and again responded in kind. The senior from Rock Hill, S.C., arced a 25-yard touchdown to Jason Croom down the right sideline for an early score. Perhaps even more impressive, Worley --- with the offense backed up to its 1-yard line --- came out firing. His first toss to Josh Smith was well placed but Smith juggled it just enough to allow the defender to break up the pass.

Undaunted, Worley hit the right sideline on an identical play the next snap and Cody Blanc made a leaping grab.

Later, however, is when Worley misfired and backup safety Max Arnold responded with an interception that he returned 90-plus yards to the end zone.

"One throw back. That's all I would like back," said Worley, who's also gaining arm strength and spin on the ball with each week after surgery on his right hand prematurely ended his 2013 season. "Really I was just trying to throw it low where no one would catch it and it turned out to be a little bit too high. Other than that I threw a couple of touchdown passes, guys were getting open for me. The offensive line stepped up today. I'm happy besides one play."

Ferguson's interception came during "overtime," just after coaches had informed both sides of the ball of the exact situation. But earlier the 6-foot-3, 190-pound gunslinger from Matthews, N.C., had deftly avoided the rush and flicked an outlet pass to Devrin Young, who made a couple nice moves and raced 25 yards to paydirt.

"I'm getting really comfortable with reading defenses. That's the main thing I've been working on. I'm getting a lot of film work on all the coverages and stuff," Ferguson said. "I feel like I'm getting pretty good at it. Hit Devrin on that and he took off."

Jones turned Ferguson's interception into a team-wide teaching lesson, flipping on the microphone to educate his team.

"Just snap-and-clear. I mean it happens sometimes. It was a bad decision," Ferguson explained. "In overtime, we're thinking touchdown or check-down. I should have got down to the check-down and just tried to get points."

Peterman did not commit a turnover, but coaches routinely pointed out to Peterman that he held onto the ball too long. He was sacked more than any of the Vols' other quarterbacks, though Peterman also showed some scrambling ability when he converted back-to-back third-and-10 situations.

Dobbs appeared to lose an unforced fumble after the sophomore was flushed from the pocket and prepared to scramble to make a play. Dobbs earlier engineered a mid-range scoring drive that nearly saw disaster strike first.

Dobbs and Jalen Hurd got tangled up in the first-down exchange, with Hurd bobbling the ball into the air and the heart of the defense before snatching it back for a modest gain. Dobbs scrambled and was brought down in the open field by Colton Jumper before firing a completion to tight end Alex Ellis moments later.

Hurd cleaned up that possession with a 20-yard stroll into the end zone in which the freshman tailback was never touched.

Both Dobbs and Peterman were unable to push the offense off its goal line following the successful stints by Worley and Ferguson. Both series with the offense backed to its 1-yard line ended in defensive victories, per Jones.

Yet Jones also liked the group progression of the quarterbacks but continued to emphasize the catastrophic turnovers could not happen. Each of the quarterbacks' three turnovers occurred in the red zone.

"I'll have to watch the film. I see that position overall continuing to get better and better and better," Jones said. "I've really been pleased so far with the play of all four quarterbacks. I'm very, very encouraged. I think we have a great competitive battle going there. It's an illustration when you have competition at positions, every individual if they're a great competitor, they improve. And all four of these individuals are improving."


Marlin Lane ran with straightforward determination, and Jalen Hurd again broke some big runs as Tennessee's running backs enjoyed a strong day behind an improved offensive line.

The backs bulled piles forward when needed, but they also saw more running lanes from a Tennessee offensive line that appeared to have one of its better performances.

"I think that position group is really starting to come on," Jones said. "Marlin's been a warrior for us. He's playing with a cast and to have him back and get some game repetitions and game-speed reps was big for us today. Jalen Hurd continues to develop, and he needs as many reps as he can. So that was extremely productive for us."

The ground game in key situations, whether it was short-yardage going into the end zone or coming off the goal line, was something that junior guard Kyler Kerbyson told was a point of emphasis and pride for the unit.

"It's great. The way the offensive line works is that we want to run the ball. So if we can down in those situations or if we're down at the goal line going in, we want to run the ball and it just helps us get that mentality right," Kerbyson said. "Because when the game's on the line, we want to be able to run the ball. We don't want to have to pass it. That's the whole mind-set of the O-line."

Kerbyson also said he sees competition spurring the Vols to improve at virtually every offensive position.

"It feels great. I mean, every single one of the running backs is stepping up. I said earlier, we have so much competition between the running backs, between the quarterbacks, between the wide receivers that it makes everybody better," said the 6-4, 304-pounder from Knoxville Catholic. "And that's the same thing going on on the O-line. You don't want to be outplayed by somebody else. It's really nice."

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