On Thursday Tennessee coach Butch Jones named Worley the team’s starter for its opening-week game against Utah State on Sunday, Aug. 31. The announcement was hardly a surprise from Jones, as Worley is the most experienced at a position that troubled Tennessee in 2013. Worley's experience appeared to play a big role in Jones’s decision.
“Justin’s played in big-time games,” Jones said at a press conference on Thursday. “He understands the environment.”
The quarterback position wasn’t expected to look markedly different on Rocky Top in 2014. The three passers competing for the starting job – Worley, Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs – were the same three quarterbacks who saw the field last season for Tennessee. Behind that trio, the Vols finished last in the SEC in passing offense (5.8 yards per attempt) and passing efficiency (105.5). Tennessee also threw a league-leading 17 interceptions. With the same candidates in Knoxville for fall camp, Jones and the Tennessee coaching staff were forced to hope for growth and development rather than change at the quarterback position.
Growth is exactly what the Vols need from Worley this season, especially in his decision-making. In eight games last year, Worley threw for 10 touchdowns but eight picks, and he completed only 56 percent of his passes. Despite playing behind one of the country’s best offensive lines, Worley wasn’t able to get Tennessee’s passing game off the ground. Miscues and a thumb injury defined Worley’s junior season.
Unfortunately for UT, there’s little evidence to suggest Worley’s senior year will be much better than last year. The Vols must replace every starter from that veteran offensive line, which could make Worley’s job that much more challenging. However, Tennessee does boast a number of talented receivers like Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Marquez North. Five-star running back Jalen Hurd could also become a major complement in the backfield as a freshman. But Worley’s decision-making isn’t likely to take a step forward if the offensive line can’t give him necessary protection.
If there’s a silver lining for Worley and the Vols, it’s this: When Worley played well in 2013, Tennessee did, too. The Vols upset 11th-ranked South Carolina on Oct. 19 after taking No. 6 Georgia to overtime in a loss the previous week. In both of those games, Worley averaged fewer than 200 passing yards per game and didn’t throw an interception. He was hardly a game-changer, but he managed the offense just well enough to keep the Vols alive.
It would be a stretch to expect a major step forward in Worley’s senior season. But what Worley can do is focus on taking care of the football. That’s the only way this Tennessee offense can hope to be effective in Jones’s second season.