Vols' Dobbs getting hard lessons in freshman year

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs is getting a tough introduction to Southeastern Conference football.

Pressed into a starting role as a freshman after injuries decimated Tennessee's quarterback depth, Dobbs has thrown five interceptions without a touchdown pass. Dobbs was 11 of 19 for 53 yards with two interceptions last week in a 14-10 loss to Vanderbilt.

"I think Josh has continued to progress," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I thought Saturday he showed his age a little bit. He rushed his progressions."

Dobbs' issues reflected the overall struggles of Tennessee's offense during a four-game skid that knocked the Volunteers out of bowl contention. Tennessee (4-7, 1-6 SEC) has averaged 11.5 points over its last four games heading into its season finale Saturday at Kentucky (2-9, 0-7).

Starting quarterback Justin Worley injured his right thumb in a 45-10 loss to Alabama that started the losing streak. Dobbs, the Vols' only healthy scholarship quarterback at the time Worley got hurt, has held the job since.

Dobbs has shown potential with his versatility. Dobbs had a 33-yard carry against Missouri in his first career start. He had a 13-yard touchdown run against Vanderbilt nullified by a block-in-the-back penalty. Coaches and teammates continually have praised his intelligence and maturity.

But his inexperience also has been evident. Dobbs threw two interceptions in the first half against Vanderbilt. Thirty-seven of his 53 yards passing came in the final 14 seconds of the game. Twice during the game, Tennessee got inside Vanderbilt's 15 without scoring.

"We were just a little bit out of sync," Dobbs said after the game.

Kentucky has its own issues on offense.

Wildcats quarterback Jalen Whitlow has neck spasms and an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, though Kentucky coach Mark Stoops remains hopeful that he can play Saturday. The Wildcats already know they'll be without leading rusher Raymond Sanders, who was suspended for violating a team rule.

"He's gotten an MRI," Stoops said Monday. "We sent it to a specialist and we are checking, and everything seems fine at this point, so we'll see how it progresses through the week."

While Kentucky is checking on Whitlow's status, Tennessee is keeping tabs on big-play receiver Marquez North, who injured an ankle in the first quarter against Vanderbilt. Jones described North's status as day to day. Jones said "a big chunk of our offense was removed" after North left the Vanderbilt game.

"We never really established a rhythm in our throw game," Jones said. "Everyone wants to point to Josh with the interceptions, and he's the quarterback and you take full responsibility and accountability for that, but it was (also) the other players around him."

Dobbs also has been facing some of the best teams in the nation. His three starts have come against No. 5 Missouri (10-1, 6-1), No. 4 Auburn (10-1, 6-1) and Vanderbilt (7-4, 4-4). He shouldn't face quite as much of a challenge against Kentucky, which ranks last in the SEC and 111th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

"I don't see him losing confidence," Tennessee offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "He's a very level-headed kid. He doesn't get too low or too high on himself. I would just tell him, like I tell him every day, just go out there and have fun, (that) you know what you're doing. He's a smart kid. Just go out there, relax, do what you've got to do and make some plays."