When asked earlier this week what he values most in a QB, first-year quarterback coach Darin Hinshaw answered without hesitation.
"The first thing is fundamentals," he said. "You've got to do the simple things - take a snap, be able to function on your drops, be able to do play-action, be able to be 100 percent on run execution, be able to hand the football off, know your reads and be able to read defenses."
You'll notice that he said nothing about having the arm strength to complete a 10-yard out or a 50-yard fly pattern. He said nothing about having the mobility to elude the rush or scramble for yardage. He said nothing about a quarterback completing 60 percent of his passes or achieving a 2/1 touchdown/interception ratio.
For now, playing QB is all about the basics. That's an approach Hinshaw and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney share.
"They're doing what the rest of the team's doing - trying to learn what we're trying to do," Chaney said.
That's understandable. Except for senior Nick Stephens' six career starts, Tennessee's experience at quarterback is virtually nil. Junior Matt Simms completed 4 of 10 passes for 39 yards as a little-used backup at Louisville in 2008 before spending 2009 at junior college. Sophomore Nick Lamaison redshirted last fall after spending 2008 in junior college. Mid-term freshman Tyler Bray is fresh out of high school.
Given how green the QBs are, it's inevitable that they're experiencing some growing pains this spring. And that's keeping their offensive coordinator a bit on edge.
"Sometimes they're doing things good," Chaney said, "and sometimes I want to strangle 'em. I don't even put a face on 'em. They're all just the green-shirt group. We're going forth that way."
None of the quarterbacks reportedly stood out in Thursday's scrimmage. Bray (8 of 13 for 69 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) was the only one to complete half of his passes. Stephens (3 of 9 for 6 yards) struggled mightily and Simms (6 of 20 for 83 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception) was just OK.
In addition to the challenge of learning a new offense, Tennessee's QBs are facing a Vol defense that has a bunch of new wrinkles this spring.
"We've got a whole new defense being put in, so we're learning that as we go," Hinshaw said. "It's great because we're putting in a lot of stuff. It's good mentally. We're getting a lot of mental work every single day as a group. We've just got to keep getting better and better and better."
Chaney believes the quarterbacks will do just that. He sees potential in each of them ... just not consistency.
"They're all competing right now," the coordinator said. "On any given day it seems like another one pops up and does a lot of good things. Then the next day another guy will jump out. Right now it's so equal that I can't begin to tell you what will take place in the next seven or eight practices. They're playing hard, and it's a day-to-day thing."
(NOTE: All of the quotes in this story came from Tuesday interviews, two days before Thursday's scrimmage took place.)