Vol Freshmen Quarterbacks: The 2013 Edition
When it comes to freshmen quarterbacks, Tennessee fans have been spoiled for nearly two decades.
Take a look at the newcomers that the Vols put under center since Peyton Manning secured the starting job in 1994 as a freshman. Soon after Manning’s career, Casey Clausen nabbed the starting job midway through the 2000 season.
After Clausen departed, Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer were productive in a starting role before Ainge eventually rose to solid first-team status in 2004. Tyler Bray proved he could throw more than beer bottles when he secured the starting quarterback spot in 2010.
Manning, Clausen and Ainge all became four-year starters. Bray started the majority of three seasons before forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft in April. But wait, there’s more.
Brandon Stewart was neck-and-neck with Manning for much of that 1994 season. He eventually transferred to Texas A&M after being beaten out by Manning. Stewart had a solid career for the Aggies. A.J. Suggs played well during his redshirt freshman season in 2000. He transferred to Georgia Tech after being beaten out by Clausen. Like Stewart, he played well after transferring.
Clearly, those freshmen quarterbacks were talented. They also had another advantage. Their teammates were talented too.
“In 2004 when you’ve got wide receivers like I had and a defense like I had, not hard,” former UT quarterback Erik Ainge said when asked how difficult it is to start as a freshman. “It’s just basically ‘Don’t screw it up.’”
Ainge, who now hosts a sportstalk show on Tennessee Sports Radio, readily admits he had it pretty good. That’s not the case for freshman quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson. Both are competing for practice time on a team that is coming off of three straight losing seasons. By all indications, this team is the lowest in talent that UT has had in at least 20 years.
“In 2013 at UT in this conference, it’s not even comparable,” Ainge said of starting with UT’s current team compared to the team he led in 2004. “It’s similar in that the learning curve is so fast. It’s not even a month of actual practice before you’re out there playing. You have to learn on the fly. You don’t get a lot of reps.
“If you can’t learn it in the meeting room and you can’t get it done in practice immediately, then you’re probably going to have a hard time being the guy that gets to go out there and play as a freshman.”
Yet Dobbs and Ferguson do have one advantage. If UT’s coaches decide to give them early playing time, there are two opponents to open the season that shouldn’t provide an overwhelming challenge: Austin Peay and Western Kentucky.
“I think it does [help the freshmen's chances],” Ainge said. “You don’t have to go to Oregon and to Florida until week three and four. But I think it also helps that the team’s expectations are low.”
Of course no UT coach is going to admit publicly that the Vols could struggle this season. Head coach Butch Jones has even hinted at championships based on his recent past with teams that were picked lower than where they finished. However, at some point, even if behind closed doors, reality will factor into Jones’ decision as to when and if he should play a freshman quarterback.
“If the older guys can’t get it done or you think that they’re 6-6 or 7-5, if you think that’s what you’ve got with them, play the freshmen,” Ainge said. “That’s what I would say. That’s what Fulmer did with us.”
Dobbs is slightly more athletic than Ferguson. That helped Schaeffer nab the starting job over Ainge in 2004. Dobbs, however, is not a run-first quarterback like Schaeffer was.
“It does help,” Ainge said. “One of the things with Dobbs, with his athletic ability in this conference, on a broken play, he might go get you five or six [yards]. Ferguson might get you back to the line of scrimmage. Neither one of them is going to make a living in this conference running the football.”
Confidence is surely a key facet to being a starting quarterback in the SEC. Ainge said he didn’t come from Oregon with that confidence. It was bred into him by his teammates.
“It had nothing to do with my confidence coming from within,” he said. “It had to do with the players on the team. It didn’t come from the coaches either because it’s their job to make you confident. The players are the ones that tell you what you think.”
Ainge said he still recalls former UT receiver Jayson Swain befriending him. He still recalls when former Vol running back Derrick Tinsley called him “The Truth”. Even getting slammed during practice by former Tennessee linebacker Kevin Simon left an impression.
“He said ‘Welcome to the SEC.’” Ainge said. “Then he picked me up, slapped me on the butt and said ‘Keep up the good work.’ Those are the things that give you confidence. Those are the things that allow you to play at a high level, not coach Fulmer saying ‘Good throw Erik’. I love coach but that has nothing to do with confidence and playing in games.”
So far, practice reps have indicated that the starting quarterback position is Justin Worley’s job to lose. The odds that Dobbs or Ferguson start the season seem slim. However, both have shown they have ability. While it might not be the good fortune Tennessee fans are used, it’s cause for optimism in the not-so-far-away future.