When teammates learned that freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs of Alpharetta would make his debut in the second half of a lopsided game in front of 100,000 people at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, they offered advice that mixed encouragement and realism.
“I told him, ‘We’re not in high school football in Georgia no more. We’re out here for real,’ ” senior offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James said.
Dobbs’ performance, in place of an injured and struggling Justin Worley, showed remarkable poise and impressive command of the offense. It also raised questions about just who will lead the Vols’ offense next week at Missouri.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who made the decision to pull Worley, was noncommittal on that point.
Shortly after the Vols’ 45-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama was over, Jones offered mixed messages. He said that he fully expected Worley to be able to go this week but that Dobbs had “absolutely” earned a right to be considered for the top job.
That leaves the Vols with a potential quarterback battle in practice this week that few could have anticipated only 48 hours ago.
The health of Worley’s fifth digit could settle the question.
Worley injured his right thumb last week when he hit his hand on a South Carolina player’s helmet while throwing a pass. He didn’t miss any snaps in the game and downplayed the severity of the injury in interviews.
But Worley wore a glove for portions of practice last week. Coaches were terse when asked about his fashion choice, saying it was merely an “experiment” to better grip the ball.
Worley wore a bandage that wrapped around his thumb on Saturday, and he appeared to struggle to get much zip on his passes.
It’s not clear if he reaggravated the thumb on one play or if it was a cumulative pounding that caused him to leave the game. He seemed to leave the field in discomfort after making a tackle on an interception.
Dobbs has been locked in a battle with fellow true freshman Riley Ferguson for most of the season. Last month, it appeared that Ferguson had the edge and would be the first true freshman quarterback called upon if needed.
Dobbs took most of the second-team reps last week in practice, where it appeared that Ferguson was limited by an undisclosed foot or leg injury.
Jones didn’t elaborate on why Dobbs got the nod over Ferguson, but he suggested it wasn’t because of injury.
“Coach’s decision,” he said.
Dobbs lost any chance at a redshirt by playing, so coaches would presumably prefer to redshirt Ferguson instead. Of course, injuries could change that plan. The only other scholarship quarterback is Nathan Peterman, who is rehabbing from his own hand injury that occurred in the first half of the Florida game.
Regardless of what happens next week at Missouri, teammates said they were impressed with Dobbs’ performance.
“I was proud of him,” James said. “I was surprised he came in with that much poise.”
Tennessee does not make true freshmen available for interviews, so Dobbs did not comment Saturday.
“He’s come a long way,” Jones said. “His accuracy has improved, his arm strength continues to improve.”