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He is Peyton Manning with quicker feet, Heath Shuler with more accuracy, Casey Clausen with a bigger arm.

Just wondering: Is it too soon to start the Heisman Trophy campaign for Riley Ferguson?

He is the next big thing in Big Orange, a do-everything quarterback destined to lead Tennessee out of the bowels of the SEC East and back to national prominence.

Need a first down? He'll run for it. Need a touchdown? He'll throw for it. Need a new conductor for the band? Give the guy a baton.

OK, there's one little detail to consider: Ferguson has yet to play a down for the Vols. Other than that, he is everything you want in a college quarterback.

This, of course, says a lot about the current state of UT's quarterback position. The people's choice is a redshirt freshman whose last meaningful snap was in the North Carolina high school state championship game in 2012. As for college football, he truly is a legend before his time.

Ferguson is the hottest topic of UT's ongoing spring practice. He leads the SEC in message board mentions and talk-radio speculation. Never has so much been expected of one who has done so little.

Ferguson is one of four Vols quarterbacks competing for a starting spot. He is the only one of the four we have not seen in an actual game. So naturally he is the presumptive starter and an All-American in waiting.

It comes with the turf. Based on what happened with Jameis Winston at Florida State last season — Heisman Trophy and national championship — the ante has been upped for redshirt freshman quarterbacks.

Part of this fascination is fueled by the fact that we know what we have with the other three members of this four-quarterback competition. And it's not exactly overwhelming.

Senior Justin Worley has started 10 games in his career and has thrown more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (11). He has won only five games as a starter, although one of them was the upset of South Carolina last season. His lack of mobility limits an offense that features the zone-read play.

Joshua Dobbs started the final four games of his freshman season in 2013 and won only once. He had his moments as a runner but often looked uncomfortable in the passing game. Against Vanderbilt, he was clearly rattled and threw for only 53 yards, was intercepted twice and sacked twice.

Nathan Peterman was ill-prepared when he was thrown to the Gators as a redshirt-freshman starter at Florida. He struggled through a nightmarish first half before suffering a broken hand. Considering what happened at The Swamp, it remains to be seen if his confidence can be rebuilt.

And then there is Ferguson. His absence from any action makes fans' hearts grow fonder. You know what you're getting from the other three quarterbacks. With Ferguson, the imagination runs wild.

For his part, Ferguson said he's comfortable competing for playing time at a position of which much is asked.

"We're quarterbacks. We're different from everybody else," he told reporters on the first day of spring practice. "We live at a higher standard than everybody else, so we just push each other every day, and that's the main thing we're focused on — just getting better every day as a quarterback and as a whole."

Since he has yet to play a down and Vols coach Butch Jones keeps a pretty tight lid on practice, media have gotten only glimpses of Ferguson, all of which heightens our fascination.

During preseason practice last year, Jones singled out Ferguson for praise after a particularly strong performance. Jones noted his "pocket presence" and said he "doesn't get rattled and made some big throws."

Worley even called Ferguson's arm "awesome."

Whether based on reality or imagination, reports leaked out of the practice field early last season that Ferguson was impressive as both a runner and a passer. He made the trip to Florida when Dobbs, his classmate, did not. But then Ferguson suffered an injury to his right leg in practice and saw Dobbs move ahead on the depth chart.

There is even a story going around that Ferguson begged Jones to burn his redshirt season in order to let him throw a Hail Mary at the end of the Vanderbilt game. True or not, it adds to the legend of a guy whose college stat line is a list of zeroes.

Ferguson has no college body of work and his body is a work in progress. He was placed on a 6,000-calorie-a-day diet and has added 25 pounds and considerable strength since his arrival at UT. He's up to 198 pounds.

"I know the SEC," he told reporters. "There are some big boys out here, so I had to put on some weight."

Smart move. Riley Ferguson needs to be one strong quarterback to carry such expectations.

David Climer's columns appear on Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. Reach him at 615-259-8020 and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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