Many expected Tennessee's four-man quarterback race during spring practice to become a three-man race sooner or later with the low man on the totem pole a potential transfer threat. But many also expected redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson to eventually win the job, based on everything from recruiting rankings to message board chatter.
But today the chatter has turned in a surprising direction.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones told http://t.co/qUSnHjK5xP he doesn't expect QB Riley Ferguson to remain with UT's program.— Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward) May 27, 2014
Chatter is probably the wrong word since that's coming from the mouth of the head coach. But make what you will of the following:
Only thing worth reporting on Riley right now is that this staff can only do so much. They invested a lot in #10, very disappointed in Riley— Erik Ainge (@ErikAinge3) May 27, 2014
Hinted to it on show today that Riley wasn't good at embracing the process and having patience to earn that QB spot. Wish him the best— Jayson Swain (@JaysonSwain) May 27, 2014
So Tennessee's quarterback battle is now back to the three players who started games last fall, which is one of the reasons some fans were really pulling for Ferguson. The former four-star who was a target of Alabama, among others, was reportedly ahead of freshman Joshua Dobbs last year but a leg injury prevented him from coming in when Justin Worley was lost for the year in mid-October. Ferguson took the redshirt while the Vols struggled to a 5-7 record; the Vols went 1-3 in Dobbs' four starts to close the year, and also lost at Florida in a game Nathan Peterman started with Worley coming in off the bench.
Fans love the backup, and in this case Ferguson was the unknown quality who looked better because the other three options never really looked great for long stretches of time. Dobbs played like a freshman and was thrown into the fire - consider, his first action came at Alabama, at Missouri, and vs Auburn - and when wide receiver Marquez North was knocked out of the Vanderbilt game he turned in one of the worst passing performances in school history in the 14-10 loss to the Commodores, which cost UT bowl eligibility. Peterman was disastrous in one half of football in Gainesville and never saw action again last year.
Justin Worley was much maligned by Vol fans in September, but rallied the Vols with a brilliant performance against Georgia in an overtime loss before being at the controls in the upset win over South Carolina two weeks later. He didn't have the physical tools or the ceiling of Ferguson, which is why many believed Riley would overtake him in spring practice. But Ferguson was by far the worst of the four in the Orange & White Game, with Dobbs offering a strong showing throwing to plenty of young talent at receiver.
With Ferguson gone you have to consider Worley the most likely candidate to start August 31, with Dobbs and Peterman in that order still a threat to earn playing time. Perhaps Dobbs will continue to make serious strides as many freshmen-to-sophomores do when they're not playing championship level opponents and have more options to throw to. But for many, the absence of Ferguson will signal an absence of "that guy" on the roster; the hope was Riley could win the job in some point this year and then be the answer for the future. Now the Vols are left with only known quantities and their blessings and curses, the current favorite to start a senior. So it suddenly becomes very important for Butch Jones to go out and sign "that guy", be it Torrance Gibson or someone else.
It's a sad day for imaginary futures on Rocky Top, but it's hard to shed too many tears over a player who never took a snap in an orange uniform. Hopefully this departure, no matter what details come out, will be best for Riley Ferguson and best for Tennessee Football. Team 118 moves forward without him, the rest of its incoming freshmen arriving on campus this week, and the Vols will look to old names to provide progress this season and, if Dobbs does not win the job this fall, give another highly-touted high school quarterback the chance to be "that guy" going forward.