published Friday, March 14th, 2014

Vols' QB race 'more difficult' with four quarterbacks

KNOXVILLE — In most of the spring practice drills for Tennessee's quarterbacks, there's only one football to go around.

Only one of them can be under center in team periods.

There are only so many repetitions in practice, and each one of them is a factor in an open competition this spring.

It's a scenario that certainly could lead to those players pressing in the chances they do get.

"They understand that they have to take advantage of their opportunities," Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said after the Volunteers practiced Thursday afternoon. "The decision's not going to be made after one practice. It's not going to be made after one throw.

"It's the accumulation of reps, it's the accumulation of your body of work, and as long as they understand that they have to manage the offense and manage it consistently, then they'll be all right."

Through just four spring practices, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of separation in Tennessee's quarterback competition among Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson, Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman.

Worley has gotten most of the first-team reps during the Vols' walk-through periods in the open viewing portion of practice, but all four took first-team walk-through reps Thursday inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex. Ferguson has continued to throw it the best, but Tennessee's team periods are closed to the media.

Working four different quarterbacks at once isn't ideal, but it's the only way to give each player a shot at the starting job.

"It's a lot of strategic planning that goes into it, from what types of throws, what types of [other drills]," Bajakian said. "Again, there's a lot of thought that goes into the process. And, yes, it's more difficult because we're trying to rep four guys.

"They work well together," he added. "They compete. They're all competitive by nature, yet supportive of one another, supportive of their teammates. We talk a lot about the power of the position. It starts here with representing the 'Power T' and representing the quarterback position here at the University of Tennessee.

"They understand that they're playing with that first, for teammates first, while they're competing against one another. We want to make sure we have success as a group and individually."

'Pleasantly surprised'

Tennessee is breaking in an entirely new starting offensive line, and newcomers -- freshman Coleman Thomas and junior college transfer Dontavius Blair -- are working with the first-team offense at right and left tackle, respectively.

Yet Bajakian likes how the new five of Blair, left guard Marcus Jackson, center Mack Crowder, right guard Kyler Kerbyson and Thomas have jelled.

"Those guys have done a good job of developing chemistry quickly," the coordinator said. "That's not uncommon for offensive linemen. They're a different breed. They came in here and they've done a lot of work on their own in the months of January and February and early here in March before we even started spring ball.

"I was pleasantly surprised when we hit the ground running on day one of the grasp of the offense for the new guys like Dontavius Blair and Coleman Thomas and how quickly they were able to understand what the calls are and the schemes."

At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Thomas has an impressive frame, and he's already made an early impression on coaches and teammates.

"Once he gets his plays down and once he knows on his own," Kerbyson said after Tuesday's practice, "it'll make him more confident, and it'll make him go out there and be able to dominate anybody in front of him, because he can do that. He just has to know that he can do that.

"[It's] his athletic ability. He's got the ability. That's plain and simple. He's got the ability. He just needs to get his mind right."

'Excited' Elder

With Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel out with injuries, freshman tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm are getting every rep and snap they can handle, and tight ends coach Mark Elder said the coaching staff isn't slowing anything for the new duo.

"They're learning on the fly," Elder said. "You're seeing some of that. There's going to be some mental mistakes. There needs to be less than what there are, but that's part of the deal. We're throwing those guys in the fire, and they're going to learn by executing, not by sitting back and watching it.

"They're going to make some mistakes, but at the same time, you see a couple of plays that they're making that you're saying, 'Shoot, that's pretty good.' We're excited about that."

Wolf, who looks every bit of 6-5 and 243 pounds, has gotten some first-team work this spring, and Helm, the nation's No. 1 tight end prospect per Rivals.com, was singled out by head coach Butch Jones for his performance in Tuesday's practice.

Tennessee's staff felt it upgraded at the position with those two, and now they're learning as they go.

"They're swimming a little bit with some things," Elder said. "There's some nuances that they're struggling to pick up, but that's to be expected when it's the first time. It's going at a faster tempo than what they've seen. The guy across from them is bigger, stronger and more physical and all those things than what they've had to do.

"With a mistake you're also seeing, 'Hey, wow, there's that flash of what we saw on film and what we were real excited about them.' They've made some plays in the passing game. They've done some good things with some blocks. It's just a matter of, 'OK, you can't do that one out of three plays. Now you need to be more consistent.' But I'm excited about what they're doing."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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