Assessing Justin Worley
Justin Worley‘s best friend wasn’t a packed Neyland Stadium. It wasn’t promising first-year coach Butch Jones that replaced the buffoonery on display by his predecessor. Worley’s best friend was a stout running game that took advantage of an overmatched opponent.
It’s hard to fairly evaluate Tennessee starting quarterback Justin Worley following a 45-0 win over Austin Peay. The Governors’ defense looked ready to be impeached early and often on Saturday.
UT’s running game tallied 160 rushing yards in the first quarter. It ended up with 315 rushing yards. On this day, UT’s running game lived up to its billing. A veteran offensive line and veteran running backs did their job.
That production allowed Worley to face a defense that had to try to stop tailbacks Rajoin Neal and Marlin Lane, who ran for 141 and 38 yards, respectively. Heck, that wasn’t all. Third-string tailback Tom Smith managed 29 yards rushing in front of an announced crowd of 97,169, none of which surmised the contest was a fair fight.
Yet one can’t blame Worley for UT scheduling a team picked to finish last in the Ohio Valley Conference. To his credit, the junior showed an adequate arm in the passing game and adequate athleticism while running the ball against Austin Peay. That was enough for a romp.
Such a performance might be enough to beat Western Kentucky next week. Maybe. Western Kentucky beat Kentucky 35-26 on Saturday. Worley’s limitations could create a far different result when the Vols host the Hilltoppers next week.
Worley missed several reads on UT’s oft-used option. He was also slow to get the ball out of the pocket on a handful of occasions. The most glaring example was an underthrown pass to receiver Marquez North in the first quarter. The freshman standout was wide open on fly route that should have resulted in a touchdown. Worley also threw a pass behind North on a slant that could have resulted in another score.
Two factors seemed to be at play. One, Worley was slow to read Austin Peay’s defense. Two, Worley doesn’t have the quick release UT fans were used to with former quarterback Tyler Bray.
That’s not to say the Vols should prefer Bray’s arm since it came attached to a poor attitude. Worley is the best fit for this team right now. But for how much longer?
UT fans can’t expect Worley’s release to improve dramatically this season. His ability to read defenses quicker had better improve, though.
Worley showed toughness on his touchdown pass to Devrin Young as he was being driven out of the pocket and onto the ground in the first half. However, that floating pass would have been in jeopardy against a Duck or Gator defense.
The final stat sheet read like this. Worley completed 11-of-13 passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns. The problem? He averaged 8 yards per completion.
Credit offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Bajakian with keeping Worley in his comfort zone. Clearly, he knows Worley’s strengths and weaknesses.
It’s that skill set that could have UT facing some hard questions against better opponents, which are coming soon. Does Worley give the Vols the best chance to beat better opponents? Will the Vols eventually need to turn to a more athletic, stronger-armed Nathan Peterman at some point this season? Will Worley’s limitations open the door for freshmen Riley Ferguson and/or Joshua Dobbs?
Of course, those are all questions that can be asked if Worley doesn’t improve in the coming week. UT’s coaches may determine that UT’s other quarterbacks’ limitations outweigh Worley’s. Then he’s the starter if by default.
UT’s coaches told fans loud and clear that redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman was the second-string quarterback when he trotted out to start the second half. That was met with mixed results.
Peterman showed flashes of his athletic ability but also some poor decision making when he nearly fumbled near his own end zone. Instead of taking a sack, Peterman tried to force a pass. The ball came free but it was ruled incomplete. Yet Peterman clearly showed he has a quicker release than Worley. Still, the offense didn’t seem as quick nor as smooth when Peterman was in the game compared to Worley.
However, UT’s offense didn’t show the same tempo with Peterman as it did with Worley. His command of the offense is what separates him from the others vying for playing time.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has shown before in his career that he’s willing to make a quarterback change. The thing he wants to avoid is a revolving door at quarterback and a season-long quarterback controversy.
Jones doesn’t have long to decide if he wants to pick a new direction. Western Kentucky beat Kentucky 35-26 while the Vols were pounding the Governors. What once would have been two warm-up games for UT teams of the past is now anything but.
Worley didn’t do anything to lose the starting job against Austin Peay. The problem is he didn’t do anything to solidify his starting position either.