KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's lack of a proven backup plan at quarterback represents arguably the Volunteers' greatest cause for concern in their bid for a breakthrough season.
The Volunteers believe they can contend for a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title after winning four of their final five games last season, but all that optimism would fade in a hurry if starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs gets hurt. Nathan Peterman's transfer to Pittsburgh leaves Dobbs as Tennessee's only returning scholarship quarterback from last season.
Recent history underscores how concerned Tennessee should be about its lack of quarterback depth.
Three of the last four years, Tennessee's season-opening starter at quarterback has missed at least four games due to injury. Dobbs stepped in each of the last two years because of season-ending injuries to Justin Worley, who has since completed his career.
''It's very concerning because you can't simulate experience,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''Josh found that out as a true freshman (in 2013). It's very challenging and very difficult.''
Tennessee's lack of quarterback depth makes it imperative that Dobbs stay healthy, which could be tricky given his tendency to run with the football. Although he played in only six games last year, Dobbs rushed for 469 yards and eight touchdowns on 104 carries.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord says coaches have shown Dobbs some footage from last season to point out instances in which the quarterback may have been better off protecting himself rather than absorbing more contact.
''We want him to be explosive, we want him to play aggressive, but he's got to play smart,'' DeBord said. ''There are going to be times when he's going to have to get down and make decisions that way. That doesn't show his lack of toughness or anything. It's just we want him to play smart that way because we don't want him to take a lot of hits.''
Tennessee signed three quarterbacks in its most recent recruiting class. With many of Tennessee's top playmakers sitting out entirely or avoiding full-contact drills as they recovery from injuries, the progress of freshman quarterbacks Quinten Dormady and Jauan Jennings has emerged as one of the major developments in spring practice.
''Everybody has to remember - and Butch keeps reminding me - that these guys should be in high school going to their proms and stuff like that,'' DeBord said. ''Those guys are really committed, they're working hard. They have their ups and downs with plays and stuff. They're going to get to that point where they're owning those plays. They're great kids. They're working hard, and I like where they are at this age right now.''
Dobbs' main backup will be Dormady, Jennings or freshman Sheriron Jones, who hasn't enrolled yet.
''I think I'm getting more and more comfortable each day,'' Dormady said. ''Obviously it's going to take time, but I think that I'm on the right track right now.''
NOTES: Offensive lineman Coleman Thomas returned to practice Thursday, one day after being reinstated to team activities. A felony theft charge against Thomas was dismissed Wednesday. Thomas made five starts at right tackle last season, but offensive line coach Don Mahoney plans to give him ''as much work at center as possible'' the remainder of spring practice as the Vols attempt to improve his versatility. ... Tennessee is conducting Saturday's practice at Neyland Stadium and is making the workout open to the student body.