The assumed departure of Riley Ferguson certainly dents the optimism of the message board on the front end of this season. But Butch Jones and his freshmen phenoms won't be fully made or broken this season; everybody knows the best chance for better days is still 2015 and beyond, and fans should be patient for at least one more year until then. For Butch's long-term security and the program's long-term health, the quarterback of the future has always been more important than the quarterback of the present. Even before Ferguson's sudden change some fans were talking themselves back into Justin Worley as the best option to take the first snap this fall.
Still, the issue the Vols have now isn't just finding the one big talent at quarterback, it's having enough depth to get through the season, both this year and next year.
We know all about the dangers of carrying three quarterbacks, as we just saw Worley, Nathan Peterman, and Josh Dobbs all start games last season and Worley, Peterman, and Ferguson all miss additional opportunities due to injury. Was 2013 an anomaly for the Vols? Here's how often Tennessee has needed more than one starting quarterback since 2000:
- 2000: Joey Mathews, A.J. Suggs, Casey Clausen
- 2002: Casey Clausen, C.J. Leak, James Banks
- 2004: Brent Schaeffer, Erik Ainge, Rick Clausen
- 2005: Erik Ainge, Rick Clausen
- 2006: Erik Ainge, Jonathan Crompton
- 2008: Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens
- 2010: Matt Simms, Tyler Bray
- 2011: Tyler Bray, Matt Simms, Justin Worley
- 2013: Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Josh Dobbs
Nine times in the last 14 years the Vols have had more than one quarterback start a game. Six of those nine times it was an injury which forced the backup into action if you count Casey Clausen's fall camp injury in 2000. And while only in 2004 and 2013 did we see injuries sideline two Vol quarterbacks, when Tennessee has to go to the backup at all it has not gone well; only Schaeffer, Ainge, and Rick Clausen in 2004 all combined to produce significant results; Casey Clausen and Tyler Bray both became the starter late in the season after the team had lost four and six games respectively.
Last year in the SEC the odds weren't much better. Only A.J. McCarron and Bo Wallace started every game in 2013. Things were better in 2012 with half the league's quarterbacks starting every game, but in 2011 Tyler Bray played in seven games and still finished fourth in the league in pass attempts thanks to just four QBs starting every game.
History suggests the odds are better than not Tennessee will need more than just Justin Worley in the fall. But the bigger issue is the Vols need not just someone to be the man in the future (and Butch Jones needs time for him to become the man if he's not already on the roster), but also others to provide the depth history has proven to be necessary. If Dobbs and Peterman stick with it and improve, great. But Tennessee's recruiting efforts at quarterback now must include more than simply trying to land one big name.
One of the biggest momentum swings for a new head coach in a rebuild can be quarterback play. As the Vols have addressed many of their needs already under Butch Jones, especially at the skill positions, now the most important position on the field becomes a need again. Tennessee needs bodies, and Tennessee needs one of them to be the answer. How soon we're going to get that answer, none of us know. For now, the Vols will press forward with a serviceable senior and two sophomores yet to show they can be the answer for Team 118 or 119. We continue to hope for the best, and saw flashes of it last year. Maybe the best is Josh Dobbs winning the job this fall and maturing into a guy who can win SEC games. Maybe the best is Justin Worley this year and Torrance Gibson for three years after that. But unfortunately, if the best doesn't materialize, Butch Jones has to prepare for the possibility of going through his first three seasons with no definitive answer at quarterback. The Vols need options for safety, and need one of them to step up by the end of next year for the security of the program.
Here's to hoping for the best.