KNOXVILLE — With less than two weeks left before the season opener, Tennessee has yet to officially name its starting quarterback, but Mike Bajakian is showing no signs of panicking.
At Cincinnati last season, the Volunteers' offensive coordinator went deep into game week of the opener before settling on Munchie Legaux, who edged Brendon Kay.
"We always talk to our guys about preparing as if you're the starter anyway, so it's not a big deal from their mentality and from their standpoint," Bajakian said after Monday night's practice. "The thing you have to balance is the reps and how you break those up, but again, we've been able to distribute reps relatively evenly anyway. Even in the course of a game-week prep, we do get a lot of work for the first and second units.
"It's a decision, again, that Coach [Butch] Jones will make in due time when he's ready to do so."
Justin Worley continues to take the vast majority of the first-team reps in practice and appears the likely starter against Austin Peay in 11 days, but there has not been clear separation among the junior, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and the freshman duo of Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs.
That's OK with Bajakian, who has said throughout preseason practice that he likes certain aspects of all four quarterbacks.
"I'm not frustrated," he said. "They're all competing hard. If they were all throwing interceptions left and right and not completing any balls, I'd be worried, but they're all competing and that's a good thing."
It's also what he expected heading into August.
"Every day they come to work with a lunch pail in hand and their hard hat on, and they go about their business," he said. "They're not looking over their shoulder about who's behind them or where they should be or how the reps are getting divided. They have been great in that regard.
"They just come to work and try to take advantage of their opportunities."
Injuries forced Tennessee to use four tailbacks against Mississippi State last season.
Running backs Robert Gillespie has maintained the philosophy of having three backs ready, and at this point redshirt sophomore Tom Smith appears to be ahead of redshirt freshman Alden Hill, who had a strong spring practice.
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Smith, who had 13 carries for 34 yards as a freshman in 2011, took some first-team reps Saturday and scored twice with the second-team offense during a red-zone period Monday.
"He's just really bought into what we're telling him to do," Gillespie said. "He's been good. He still has a ways to go from a game and situational [standpoint] and being in live settings where he has to show he can make plays. ... He's earned my trust as a position coach, and I think he's earned trust from the offensive coordinator and also the head coach."
There's a clear gap between Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane and the third option, whether it's Smith, Hill or Maryland transfer Justus Pickett, who's still trying to gain an NCAA waiver granting him immediate eligibility.
"The one and two are going to be the guys that get the most reps," Gillespie said, "but that three has to be ready to be that two at any moment."
The other Smith
Freshman receiver Josh Smith has maintained a spot with the first-team offense throughout preseason practice, but receivers coach Zach Azzanni said that may be more misleading than anything.
"He really hasn't held on to his spot," he said. "I need to teach him the offense. That's really all it is. I wouldn't read into him running out there with the first group. It's just me making sure he's getting reps so I can see if he can do it and how much information he can retain when he gets tired. The twos and threes don't get as many reps, and I need to see if he can get a full load of reps and what he can retain, what he can do."
The 6-1, 193-pounder finished his high school career with more than 4,000 yards and 52 touchdown catches in Christian Academy of Knoxville's precision pass-happy offense.
"He's done a nice job, but he hit a little bit of a wall here toward the end of camp," Azzanni said. "I wouldn't read into it too much. If he jogs out there game one, that's because he has a good week of practice next week."
Azzanni said Pig Howard is the closest to becoming a consistent playmaker at receiver.
"I know who can get 20-yard plays when they need to, but they haven't shown they can do it consistently yet," he said. "There's guys in there showing flashes to make those plays, but then the next day it'll be a down day because they're young. Playmakers are playmakers, and these guys are up and down."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...