Finding right QB critical for Jones, Vols

Now that Riley Ferguson has apparently decided Tennessee is not for him, the Vols’ future at quarterback just got a lot murkier.

And, really, not so much for this upcoming season. The feeling among the Tennessee coaches coming out of the spring was that senior Justin Worley would be their starter. The Vols played their best football a year ago when Worley was healthy.

He’ll have more playmakers around him this season and has both the experience and right stuff mentally to more than adequately man the quarterback position for the Vols in 2014.

It’s the 2015 season that should have Butch Jones and the Big Orange Nation on alert.

That’s the season Jones needs to make his move, his third season on the job. Regardless of what he does this year, he’s going to be (and should be) OK.

But Year No. 3 will be pivotal. That’s when the first fair evaluation of the program on Jones’ watch can be made, and it’s reasonable to expect the Vols should at least be in the East Division race conversation by then.

As it appears now, Jones and the Vols will head into such an important season with either a first-year starter at quarterback -- presumably a true freshman -- or hoping rising sophomore Josh Dobbs gets a lot better between now and then.

There’s no question Tennessee needs to upgrade on the defensive line if this program is going to return to the prominence it enjoyed in the 1990s under Phillip Fulmer. The Vols hope they’ve taken a big step in that direction with the defensive line class they’re bringing in this summer.

But the more you look at it, the more pressing priority now for Jones is getting it right at quarterback. In fact, his future may well depend on it.

The good news for the Vols is that they should be in prime position to lure a top-flight quarterback in the 2015 class. Some of the ones they’re on are Sam Darnold of San Clemente, California; Quinten Dormady of Boerne, Texas; Deondre Francois of Orlando, Florida; Torrance Gibson of Plantation, Florida; and Sheriron Jones of Moreno Valley, California.

Tennessee hadn’t been exploring the idea of bringing in a junior college quarterback or a transfer, but that could well be an option now. Maybe the Vols hit it just right, similar to the way Auburn did with Nick Marshall or the way Alabama hopes it has with Jacob Coker.

Either way, good luck in pinpointing the Vols’ quarterback of the future.

That’s not to write off Dobbs, who was put into a very difficult situation last season when he had to come in and play as a true freshman after Worley was injured. He struggled during the last month of the season, but to his credit, he came back this spring and performed well in the Vols’ spring game.

It’s also telling that while Ferguson went home to Charlotte, North Carolina, after the semester ended earlier this month that Dobbs and Worley were both out in California working with quarterback guru George Whitfield.

Nathan Peterman, who will be a redshirt sophomore, also returns, although his reps were limited in the spring. There was some thought that he might transfer, too.

The bottom line is that there’s not a quarterback on campus who will be around in 2015 who has inspired confidence among the coaches or his teammates that he can unequivocally be “the guy” to lead the Vols back into championship contention.

Look, that can change, and we’ve all seen quarterbacks develop, transform and grow over time. And even though Ferguson was thought to be the most talented of the bunch, do you really trust a guy to lead your team who never seemed to have both feet in the boat?

It’s probably better for Jones and Co. to find that out now as opposed to later, say in the fourth quarter of a tight game on the road against Alabama or Florida.

With the way Jones and his staff are recruiting, the Vols should finally look like an SEC-contending team again in 2015.

But the race is on to find the right trigger man.