KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- After the final day of fall camp the Vols' still have their biggest question mark still hovering in the air. Who will be under center when the Tennessee offense takes the field against Austin Peay?
After an open competition for the spot for the past several weeks, a quarterback has still yet to be named.
"They've all been very attentive, very astute," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian when asked on if he was comfortable with all of their options. "They have a firm grasp of what we're doing offensively so yes."
Heading into camp, it was assumed that junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshmen Nathan Peterman were the front runners to win the spot but Bajakian has been impressed with the group as a whole, including freshmen newcomers Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson.
"We always talk to our guys about preparing as if you're the starter," he said. "It's not a big deal from their mentality and their standpoint. The thing you have to balance is the reps and how you break those up. But again we've been able to distribute reps relatively evenly anyway and even in the course of a game week prep we do get a lot of work for the first and second unit so it's a decision again that Coach Jones will make in due time, when he's ready to do so."
While there may still not be a clear starter, Bajakian said that as a staff they've experienced position battles like this one and that he feels he could trot any one of the quarterback candidates out there on a Saturday.
Even in Jones and Co.'s last year at the University of Cincinnati they took a quarterback competition all the way to the week leading up to the first game, finally naming Munchie Legaux their week one starter against Pittsburgh.
Bajakian stood firm that the choice will be made in due time.
"Again, the decision on the depth chart is Coach Jones'," said Bajakian. "I think he's better suited to comment on that but we'll play the guy that gives us the best chance of winning."
And the play caller isn't at all surprised that the battle has been so close. He applauded the blue collar effort from each of his quarterbacks.
"No, I expected the guys to compete and they are," he said. "Every day they come to work with their lunch pail in hand and their hard hat on. They go about their business. They're not looking over their shoulder with who's behind them, where they should be or about how the reps are getting divided. They've been great in that regard. They just come to work and try to take advantage of their opportunities."
FBI, NO NOT THAT FBI
One thing defensive line coach Steve Stripling preaches is FBI.
Stripling is not a huge fan of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Instead he wants his players to have a lot of FootBall Intelligence.
"For a defensive lineman, he needs to go up there on first and 10 and know if it is run or pass," explained Stripling. "We are just not to that point yet. A good defensive lineman goes up there, he knows it is run and he can prepare himself, if he knows it is pass or play action. Right now it is a little bit of a mystery so we need to increase our football intelligence and increase our reps to become better."
Stripling was referring to the team not accomplishing the goal they have set forth for themselves this season in trying to hold the run to four yards or less on first down at least 65 percent of the time.
It comes down to FBI.
Though the goal was not accomplished Saturday, Stripling has seen huge amount of improvement from the D-Line throughout camp.
"The entire camp what I continue to see and I have pointed it out to the D-Line, that was the first time I saw [them recognize rush or pass on first down]," said Stripling. It is something we have talked about and something we have actually drilled, all of a sudden boom it shows up in the scrimmage. That is the first time I have seen it."
"Almost every day there is one of those firsts," continued Stripling. "It might be a pass rush technique. It might be identifying a back set. I will say hey, guys that is the first time we have done that. It is a journey, we are still going down that path with them as we go."
THE FIFTH DB
Arguably the toughest position in the secondary, the nickelback must be a player capable of filling many roles. For the Vols, that man is Mr. Consistency, JaRon Toney.
The former tailback made the jump to the defensive side of the ball last season, appearing in 11 games while starting the final four.
Assistant head coach and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez stressed the difficulty of playing the position after Monday night's practice.
"You've got to have a combination of a lot of things," said Martinez. "No. 1, you have to be physical because you're closer to the ball and you're involved in more of the run game than you would be if you were at corner. You have to be able to cover, you have to be able to blitz, and you have to be able to make checks.
"In our defense, you're kind of like a safety/linebacker. The tight ends will do both the run and the pass, and you have to communicate really well."
Standing at 5-feet-10 and weighing in at 184-pounds, Toney proved he has the physicality to handle the spot last season, and is leaving a lasting impression on the new coaching staff so far this fall.
"He's a very consistent kid; he's a very consistent player," Martinez said. "He's on all of our special teams. The coaching staff is always fighting to put him on their teams. You can't play defense unless you're really wanted on special teams. He's a guy that has been very consistent."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek has also taken notice of the Alcoa product.
"JaRon is going to help us win," said Jancek. "He is a guy that knows what to do and is in a position that he just has to make plays when the time presents itself. The last scrimmage he had a couple pass break ups and a couple tackles, so we are happy with him and he's got to keep getting better."
WATCH OUT FOR WILLIAMS
The defensive coaches were singing the praises of Jordan Williams Monday night.
The 6-5, 260 pound defensive lineman finished 2012 as one of just three defensive linemen with multiple sacks on the season.
Williams entered 2013 fall camp, however with something to prove.
"Jordan has had a great camp," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "Out of the D-Lineman, he has been the most impressive, he has shown the most improvement. Again, we are looking for pass rush. You have to be able to generate some form of pressure, have to be able to disrupt the quarterback without blitz every single time. That is out challenge. That is where Jordan has really improved and shown that he has made great strides in that area."
His defensive line coach Steve Stripling agrees. He believes there is something about Jordan that has helped him to keep making strides throughout August.
"Jordan is a young man that continues to progress," said Stripling. "He has athletic ability. What he brings is a little more effort."
"He has that juice, the stamina and conditioning, maybe more so than a lot of the guys."
SMITH EARNS TIME, TRUST
Although the No. 1 running back will be dependent on the first running play called in a game, Volunteers running back coach Robert Gillespie is confident in all of his players and believes each of them are worthy of playing time.
Tom Smith is one of those running backs rising to the occasion, or as Team 117 likes to say, rising to the top.
"He's actually probably one of the more vocal guys in the running back room," said Gillespie. "He's just really just trying to work on the fine details of becoming a better pass protector, but from the effort standpoint, from the leadership standpoint, he's been a vocal guy to help me coach on the field. He's done a really good job. I think this is the first time he's really getting meaningful reps, so he's shown a lot of improvement."
After redshirting last season and only playing in three games in the 2011 season, Smith is eager to get out on the playing field and staying healthy is one of the biggest factors in running back play.
"That's the main thing for a running back," Gillespie said. "Just the longer you stay healthy, you're going to get those opportunities and right now he's done a good job. This spring he was a little banged up and he wasn't able to get those reps, but so far this fall camp, he's been healthy. He's showing us that we can give him the football."
While Gillespie won't name specifics because all running backs show him great potential, the Big Orange is bound to see Smith contribute in Neyland Stadium this fall.
"He's earned my trust as a position coach," said Gillespie. "I think he's earned the trust from the offensive coordinator and also the head coach."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has been pleased with Smith's emergence.
"Tom has been pretty consistent," said Bajakian. "He's worked hard, he's been a leader in that meeting room. He's a high energy guy that demands a lot of the people around him so he's done a good job of being durable and being a consistent guy."
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