Tennessee head coach Butch Jones opened the battle for many of the Vols' starting spots Thursday with the start of training camp, and none are more vital and unclaimed than the quarterback position.
Junior Justin Worley comes in with the only experience—starting three games in 2011—and earned most of the first-team reps this spring. However, UT's preseason depth chart listed him as a co-starter with redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman.
Worley insisted he hadn't seen nor heard about the depth chart, but acknowledged each quarterback will be going into camp hungry to take the starting spot.
"All offseason we've been working, both (Peterman) and I," Worley said. "I guess the quarterback battle is going to continue into fall camp, so both of us are going to try our hardest to win the spot and win the trust of the coaches."
Then it gets interesting. Incoming freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs make up the four-deep pool of quarterbacks who could nab the starting job. If either of these highly-touted newcomers evens the playing field early on, they could force Jones' hand.
Jones hasn't ruled out the possibility of a freshman coming in and taking over the offense from day one—in fact, he personally asked for them to distance themselves with the limited snaps they'll face.
"I don't think it's unrealistic," he said. "Is it difficult? Absolutely. We're going to play the quarterback who can manage the game for us, take care of the football for Tennessee, and put us in the right situation.
"The freshmen quarterbacks will probably have limited reps starting off, so every rep is critical. Do something to catch the coaches' eyes."
Standing out at camp may not be enough for any of the four to convince Jones and his staff they're deserving of the job.
The new head coach says he wants his team to be built from the quarterback on down.
"We expect our quarterback to be the alpha male of the offense," Jones said. "He is the leader. When things start going array, they're all going to look to him. He's the one who is in control. We talk about being in control and a commanding presence in everything that you do."
In that case, the likely choice would be Worley, who regularly coordinates team workouts over the summer. He certainly caught Jones' eye over the spring and during the offseason with his steady approach.
"(Worley)'s consistent," Jones said. "I don't like teams that are emotionally up and down. I just want teams that come to work every day and Justin has been that. We've challenged him and you know what you're getting every single day."
Peterman, like Worley, hasn't seen the depth chart but stressed the fact that any team is just one play away from the backup being thrust out onto the field.
"I don't think it's a huge deal," Peterman said, "You just have to be prepared either way, if you're the starter or the backup. You can't put too much weight on the depth chart."
Entering their first true action, Ferguson and Dobbs were not on the two-deep preseason depth chart that Jones coined as "irrelevant." But that hasn't stopped Peterman from seeing real skill from the two newcomers.
"Both Riley and Josh have picked it up real well," Peterman said. "They've been working hard in the weight room, film room as well as the field. They've done a great job coming in and really showing a hunger and a thirst to it."
As the countdown for football time in Tennessee ticks down to less than a month, time is running out for the Vols to figure out who will start the Aug. 31 opener vs. Austin Peay.
Jones clearly stated he'd like to name a starter early on in training camp, if the opportunity presents itself.
"Yes, I would, unless it's really, really close," he said. "If someone comes in and distances themselves and really takes hold of this football team and is their leader, we're going to name a starting quarterback.
"I'm not an individual who likes to play a number of quarterbacks. We have a system in place offensively that will play to the strengths of whoever is quarterback."
Worley's wishful uncertainty summed it up best.
"Hopefully one of us can persuade him to make a decision sometime soon, I guess, I don't know."