TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Vols were seconds away from burning an all-important redshirt.
Josh Dobbs strutted onto the field with the first-team offense after an Alabama goal-line fumble. Trainers huddled around starting quarterback Justin Worley after he hurt his already-injured thumb on the previous Tennessee possession.
Then, officials reviewed the fumble and the offense jogged off the field. When the call stood and UT retained possession, it was Worley – not Dobbs – who trotted into the offensive huddle.
Vol fans were left wondering if that was the closest the highly-touted newcomer would get to appearing in a football game this season.
It wasn't. Head coach Butch Jones opted to go with Dobbs in the second half, and the true freshman led the Vols on their only two scoring drives while injecting promise into a 45-10 loss full of despair for Tennessee.
Jones said the move was made to prevent further injury to Worley, but came out impressed by his youngster.
"He (Dobbs) managed the offense," Jones said. "For a true freshman coming in this environment, I was very proud of the way he handled the circumstances."
Dobbs' first three plays were handoffs, and his first career pass was dropped by Johnathon Johnson for a would-be first down.
On the next drive, he connected on throws of 14 yards to Marquez North and 24 yards to Johnson, along with an 11-yard rush. His quick legs provided a burst in the Vols' spread offense that doesn't fully click without a mobile quarterback.
The gangly, yet poised freshman finished 5-of-12 passing for 75 yards and added 19 yards on the ground. Jones believes the performance will easily be built upon, given the quarterback's mentality.
"I thought he had great command presence," Jones said of Dobbs. "Josh is extremely intelligent, he's very bright and he's very competitive. So those are valuable reps moving forward."
The emergence of the 6-foot-3, 193-pounder comes at a murky time. Worley firmly owned the starting spot after impressive performances against Georgia and South Carolina before a week-long injury worsened on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium and gave his backup a chance to shine.
Jones shed light on the quarterback who has started seven of UT's eight games.
"(Worley) could've went, but he has a hard time throwing the ball with any velocity at all," Jones said. "So, you know, instead of risking further injury, we went with Josh."
Which true freshman would get the reigns was not clear until Dobbs ran out on the field. Fellow freshman Riley Ferguson split reps with Dobbs in practice all season.
Jones said after the game it was a "coaches' decision" to go with Dobbs over Ferguson, but complimented the improvement of both quarterbacks over the course of the season.
"(Dobbs has) come a long way," Jones said. "His accuracy has improved, his arm strength continues to improve, his command presence, his leadership. He continues to improve just like Riley Ferguson continues to improve."
When the coaching staff announced Dobbs would play the second half, UT offensive tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson made a beeline for the Alpharetta, Ga., native and gave him some important words of advice.
"We all came to him at halftime and told him, 'We believe in you,'" Richardson said. "'Just go in there and be poised.'
"The thing about (Dobbs) is he's not a very arrogant or pompous type of person. He's very humble, and we just told him we believed in him and he went in there and executed."
Senior running back Raijon Neal, who lined up alongside Dobbs in the backfield and saw his composure first-hand in the hostile environment, said the young quarterback displayed confidence.
"If he was (rattled), he sure didn't show it," Neal said. "Maybe I'll ask him a little later, but he held his own and kept composure and luckily he put together a nice second half for us."
Technically, Tennessee tied that "nice second half" 10-10 with the two-time defending national champion.