HOOVER, Ala. — It might be the elephant inside Tennessee's football complex, but Ja'Wuan James and Antonio "Tiny" Richardson don't seem to be sweating the Volunteers' unknown at quarterback.
In answering questions at SEC media days on Wednesday, the two offensive tackles gave away no hints as to who may win Tennessee's competition at the position when it begins in earnest in August.
"It's not that different," Richardson said. "As players and as people, you adapt to whatever it is that's given to you. Whoever the starting quarterback is, it'll be the same as it was last year: we're just going to do what we have to do as an offensive line to protect them.
"As an offensive line, we told them we don't play favorites. Our staff, our coaches, they're really smart and they know what they're doing. We told them whoever it is that's going to be the starting quarterback, just know that we're going to protect you and go in there and play fast, smart, and physical."
Unlike the last two seasons, neither player knows for whom they'll be protecting when Tennessee opens the season against Austin Peay on Aug. 31 or beyond, but they've been able to see plenty of all four quarterbacks -- junior Justin Worley, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and freshmen Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs -- this summer.
Since NCAA rules prohibit coaches from any on-field interaction with players during the summer, James and Richardson have as good a view as anybody of the competing quartet in the setting of workouts, film study and pass skeleton work.
"When I see them out there when we do drills and stuff like that and watching them do 7-on-7, I see different things, and all four, they're all great quarterbacks," James said. "They all bring something different to the table, so whoever wins the job at the end of August, that's who we're going to have to protect.
"You see Worley grabbing the freshmen and you see Nate grabbing the freshmen and they're watching film together, teaching them still and not just shoving them to the side like, 'Hey, I'm going to have the edge over you.' I feel like it's a healthy competition."
When first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones took over at Central Michigan in 2007, he inherited Dan LeFevour, the Mid-American Conference freshman of the year in 2006 who would go on to register the third-most yards of total offense (15,853) for a career in NCAA history.
At Cincinnati, Jones replaced departed quarterbacks heading into the 2010 and 2012 seasons with players who started a combined nine games as backups the previous year and switched quarterbacks in November of last season.
"When you become a full-time starter, your life changes," Jones said. "You have to block out the clutter, the distractions, all the things that are associated with being a starting quarterback at a very high level in a program that everybody watches.
"I like the progress Justin has made and Nathan has made," he added, "and I'm excited to see what the two freshmen bring to the table when we start camp."
James and Richardson offered more insight.
"Justin's been in it," James said. "I think his first game starting was South Carolina [as a freshman in 2010], so he's been in the SEC. He's played those three or four games, so you would have to say he has experience because he's been in the fire, but everybody's just competing. Whoever wins it, we're going to make sure they're comfortable."
Richardson noted the arm strength of the two freshmen before applying a disclaimer.
"Cannons. Those boys can throw the ball, and they can run," he said. "For this spread offense, I think that they're made for it, but you know just because you're made for it doesn't mean [anything]. They're freshmen, they've got to get implemented to the system."
Of the two newcomers, who were invited to last summer's Elite 11 camp for the nation's top quarterbacks, Dobbs has received more of the offseason buzz, and he's impressed coaches and teammates with his intelligence.
"That kid is smart," James said. "That kid is amazing. He's taking sophomore classes already, but you can tell he's smart. He learned the playbook quick while he was here.
"I watched film with him a couple of times. I take to him watch film and show him things, because I thought he was behind. I was like, 'I want you to have a fair advantage, too,' and he's like, 'I already know everything.' We went in the film room, and he broke everything down. He's a smart, an intelligent kid and he has a lot of ability, too."
It was Richardson, though, who said it best.
"I don't know who the starting quarterback will be. We'll see."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...