KNOXVILLE — Flash back to October 2013, when Tennessee was one loose helmet or one play — the starting quarterback hitting his thumb on a defender's helmet, for example — from playing one of its two true freshman quarterbacks.
Before the week of the Alabama game, Riley Ferguson very likely would have been that freshman quarterback.
His own injury kept him from making his debut when starter Justin Worley was lost for the season at halftime of the game in Tuscaloosa, and fellow freshman Josh Dobbs finished out the season for the Volunteers.
For Ferguson, though, that's ancient history.
"I don't know about that. That's last year," he said Friday evening after Tennessee's first spring practice. "I'm focused on this year. I'm not really worried about if I would have went in or if I wouldn't have or if I was hurt or if I wasn't hurt.
"I feel like I could have played," he added. "I don't know if that would have been the case, them putting me in, but I was just listening to the coaches telling me what I needed to do and just getting better every day."
In hindsight, it may have been the biggest what-if scenario for Tennessee's 2013 season.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman already was out following thumb surgery, leaving Ferguson and Dobbs as Worley's backups. If an MRI the week of the Alabama game hadn't shown Ferguson had suffered a stress fracture in his right leg, the Charlotte native had shown he was just ahead of Dobbs in the quarterback pecking order.
"Never been through a year like we were last year with the injuries at that position," Vols coach Butch Jones recalled.
Instead, Ferguson was the one who ended up with the redshirt thanks to an injury he wasn't sure when he suffered.
"We do not know, really," he said. "It might just be from over-pressing, like when I'm dropping and pressing off of it to throw, because it's my right leg. I think that's the main thing. It got to a point where it was just really sore. I didn't know what was going on, so I said something to them, they took me to get an MRI and I had a stress fracture in my fibula.
"It was difficult, but God does mysterious things. He works in different kind of ways, and I just looked up to him. He helped me get through it, and now I'm just focused on this year."
The 6-foot-3 Ferguson, who's now 198 pounds, up 25 from when he arrived on campus last summer, is the only quarterback in Tennessee's four-man competition who didn't start a game last season, but he's been in the program for nearly a full year.
He was a little bit more brash in earlier interviews -- "I'm definitely trying to become the starter, so I'm going to do whatever it takes to get that," he told the Times Free Press last May -- than he was in his media debut at Tennessee on Friday, but his voice still exudes a confidence bordering on cockiness.
Ferguson threw for more than 8,000 yards and 94 touchdowns in his three-year career at Butler High School in Charlotte and helped the Bulldogs win state championships in 2010 and 2012. He probably has the strongest arm of the Vols' four quarterbacks, and he's shown he can move well inside and outside of the pocket.
Jones singled him out in praise for a back-shoulder throw against press coverage to junior college transfer Von Pearson during Friday's practice.
"I liked what I saw in him," said Tennessee's coach. "I liked what I saw in all the quarterbacks, but I liked his quarterback intangibles. He was extremely accurate with the football. He looked very confident, and he made some big-time throws today."
Ferguson hopes he can continue to make his case to be Tennessee's starting quarterback.
"I'm just going out," he said, "and being who I am playing quarterback, just working with my teammates every day getting the chemistry down and just hoping for the best during spring, then going on into the fall."
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 ...