KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- If Tennessee doesn’t make a bowl game this season, it won’t be because of Justin Worley.
There’s an old saying in football: The quarterback gets way too much of the credit when his team wins and way too much of the blame when it loses.
Worley, who’s never going to be mistaken for a franchise quarterback, has been a steadying influence on a team that’s incredibly young. The Vols played 21 true freshmen in their season-opening 38-7 win over Utah State on Sunday.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones has mentioned a couple of different times since that game how calm and collected his senior quarterback looked and noted, “I thought the game played slow for him.”
Worley, in fact, called it the slowest the game has been for him during his Tennessee career.
“It goes back to my confidence level, my confidence in (the Vols’ receivers) and my confidence in our whole offensive scheme,” said Worley, who finished 27-of-38 for 273 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
As much as anything, the players on Tennessee trust and respect Worley. It’s been a tough road for him to get to this point. He was thrown into the fire as a true freshman before he was ready and struggled. And then a year ago, he suffered a season-ending thumb injury. But he’s persevered and continued to doggedly bang away at his craft.
That perseverance has served as model, in a lot of ways, for this entire team, and his command of the offense has allowed the Vols to put it in overdrive. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said they snapped the ball 48 times in the first half on Sunday and had 76 snaps by the end of the third quarter.
“That’s as fast as we’ve moved since I’ve been here,” Bajakian said.
Worley spread the wealth, too. He connected with 11 different receivers. He threw it quickly, threw it on rhythm and completed 13 straight passes at one point in the second half.
He also didn’t turn it over after coming into the season with more career interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (11).
To be fair, Worley watched from the sideline in 2012 when Tyler Bray was throwing to the star-studded wide receiver triumvirate of Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera. Three of those four are currently playing in the NFL.
Nobody’s suggesting Worley is surrounded by that kind of talent, but he does have more players around him who can make things happen after the catch than he did a year ago.
“It’s huge that I don’t feel like I have to force the ball in order for us to have (an explosive) play,” Worley said.
It’s true that many of his passes were shorter ones against Utah State and that the Vols will have to be able to go down the field more effectively once they get into SEC play. That’s not going to be easy with such an unproven offensive line that’s already been hit with injuries and a running game that’s still evolving.
But having a veteran like Worley, who hasn’t flinched when things haven’t gone well for him in the past, should serve the Vols well as they try to end a string of four straight losing seasons.
“We have a new offensive line, other new players, but he did a great job of communicating and getting everything going,” Tennessee senior running back Marlin Lane said. “I love Justin.”