KNOXVILLE — As Tennessee's quarterbacks threw routes on air to Tennessee's wide receivers inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex on Tuesday evening, coach Butch Jones barked some significant statistics at his players.
"Fifty-two yards!" Jones hollered. "Fifty-two yards against a backup secondary!"
Freshman Josh Dobbs actually threw for 53 yards in the 14-10 loss to Vanderbilt, which in the course of the game had three starting defensive backs exit with injury and the fourth ejected for a targeting penalty.
But the Volunteers passing game was nonexistent in a key game, though hardly all the blame falls on the shoulders of the player making his third start.
"Same as it is and always has been: I'm extremely confident in my skills," Dobbs said after rain forced the Vols indoors for Tuesday's practice. "I know I can go out and execute whatever the coaches ask me to.
"I feel like I have a lot to work on and a lot to continue to get better at, and I'm just going to continue working hard."
The numbers have gotten progressively worse for Dobbs, who has added the element of a running quarterback to an offensive system that hinges on having one. He has thrown five interceptions and zero touchdown passes this season. After throwing for 240 yards in his first start at Missouri, Dobbs had fewer yards (181) despite one more completion the past two games.
Yet the struggles in the passing game are hardly new for Tennessee, which lost its quarterback and nearly 80 percent of its production at receiver and tight end from last season. The 2013 Vols have 28 passing plays of 20 or more yards, which is a little more than half of the 53 they generated in 2012.
Tennessee's season high for passing yards in a game is 240 from Dobbs at Missouri, and Justin Worley's 204 yards against South Alabama and 215 against Georgia are the only other times a Vols quarterback threw for more than 200 yards in a game in 2013, with one to go.
Three quarterbacks have combined for 1,780 yards this season, and the Vols need 220 yards in the season finale at Kentucky to avoid becoming just the third Tennessee team since 1982 to finish a season with fewer than 2,000 passing yards.
Jones deflected some of the responsibility for last week's poor performance away from Dobbs, whose two interceptions were aided by one receiver's mistake and another's stumble.
"He came to the sideline [and] he was just like, 'Those are my fault, guys, but we're good, we've still got a long way to go and we can win this game,'" right tackle Ja'Wuan James said Monday.
"I don't see him losing confidence. He's a very level-headed kid. He doesn't get too low or too high on himself, but I would just tell him like I tell him every day, 'Just go out there and have fun. You know what you're doing.' He's a smart kid, so just go out there and relax and do what you've got to do to make some plays."
During Tennessee's open date earlier this month, Jones said the deep ball was the next phase of Dobbs' development, and at least three of his interceptions came on throws 15 or more yards down the field. While the best runner of the Vols' quartet of quarterbacks, Dobbs needs the most work as a passer. He was fourth in the pecking order entering the season, though.
Now Jones wants to see the calm, poised Dobbs, who was thrown into the fire due to injuries to Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and fellow freshman Riley Ferguson, show more external emotion.
"He has intensity, but sometimes it's not as outward as we would like it to be," the coach said. "It's a growth and maturation process. Again, it's being a true freshman. A lot of times you have the luxury of redshirting, or you enroll early and you go through spring football, so you're not really a true freshman.
"He's a true freshman. I think it is magnified, and it is a process. He's a young individual in a program that has much scrutiny and a lot of attention. That's part of being the quarterback and playing that position at Tennessee."
It's also a position that figures to be again up for grabs when the offseason starts Sunday.
"I have a lot of room for improvement," Dobbs said. "I have a long ways to go. I have a lot to work on, and I'm looking forward to working on those things."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...