Tennessee's quarterback situation is a mess. In fact, that might be putting it kindly. And there's nothing Butch Jones or anyone on the staff can do to make it stop being a mess. At least nothing they can do immediately, barring a turnaround more shocking than mid-2009 Jonathan Crompton.
So what is there to be done? First, let's start with what we know, or at least have very good reason to believe:
- Nathan Peterman is not an SEC-caliber quarterback--not even as a backup. I don't like writing off someone's career when they're only a redshirt freshman, but Peterman has not shown anything in any of his four game appearances or any of the open practices that indicated he can play at this level. Also, as we found out an hour ago, he's injured and will miss at least four weeks.
- Justin Worley is the best quarterback on the team in the extreme short-term. This may be a controversial statement, but he did win the job in fall camp, and there's no denying he's better than Peterman. Is there a reason to revisit last week's assumption that one of the quarterbacks on the bench is ready to be an SEC starter? Not that I can see.
- Justin Worley is not a long-term answer. His decision-making isn't terrible, so he may be the best hope for a game-managing placeholder in the extremely near future. But his arm strength is subpar and he's struggled mightily with accuracy. The best reasonable hope for Worley is someone who avoids losing games, not someone who wins them.
- It's important to have a back-up quarterback who isn't a deer-in-headlights.
- When he recovers from injury, move Nathan Peterman to third on the depth chart. Use him only in case of absolute emergency (read into "absolute emergency" what you will. I read into this "injury to all of the other quarterbacks, possibly including Wildcat quarterbacks").
- Move Riley Ferguson* to second on the depth chart, and get him as many snaps as you can without endangering results. If he's not the best option right now, he doesn't start right now. But give him plenty of snaps in practice. Give him a scripted drive in the first half against South Alabama. Maybe one against Georgia too. And give him all of what will hopefully be ample garbage time minutes against the Jaguars. This is a key towards both major goals. If you want a back-up who isn't a deer-in-headlights, he needs snaps. If Peterman isn't a capable back-up, that means it's time to give Ferguson snaps. And the more snaps Ferguson gets, the faster he improves, and the better his chances are of overtaking Justin Worley, who we've assumed is not the long-term solution.
- As soon as Ferguson overtakes Worley, make Ferguson the starter. No sooner, no later. And no waffling back and forth. Once you've made the call, stick with it. This may seem obvious, but it is important. If you put Ferguson out there with the weight of the program on his shoulders before he's ready, you're liable to have another disaster. So don't start him now. But he is the future, and Worley isn't. So there's no reason for him to languish behind the more experienced player any longer than he has to. As soon as he's ready, make the move.
- Redshirt Dobbs. Barring disaster, there's no reason to burn the redshirts of both freshmen. They won't be in the game at the same time, and they're both pro-style quarterbacks, so the contrast that allowed the Erik Ainge/Brent Schaeffer system to work isn't there. Additionally, if you're splitting reps between two freshmen, you're not getting either of them the work they need to give Tennessee the best possible back-up and potential starter later in the season. So give Dobbs another year of eligibility for his trouble.
- In the offseason, facilitate a transfer for Peterman (assuming no miraculous turnaround), and open up the competition between Ferguson and Dobbs (assuming Worley has been overtaken. Otherwise, seriously consider finding a JUCO or transfer). Just because Dobbs is behind in September of his true freshman year doesn't mean he's behind for good. A redshirt ensures that Dobbs will have a year of eligibility after Ferguson leaves, but if you don't want him to transfer and leave Tennessee with one non-senior on the roster, give him a chance to win the job.