It has been quite a season so far for Tennessee and for its quarterback, Justin Worley.
He won a four-man battle in preseason training camp for the starting quarterback job and started the first three games, then was benched in favor of Nate Peterman for the Florida game on Sept. 21 but came in that day in relief of Peterman and played well.
Worley has started every game since then and the Volunteers as a team are picking up some steam, losing a heartbreaker in overtime to Georgia before turning around and upsetting a top-25 team, South Carolina, 23-21 last week. Worley was hit as he delivered a 39-yard completion to Marquez North, one that North caught one-handed and pinned to his helmet, to help get the Vols into field-goal range or the game-winning points.
So we caught up with Worley to talk about his season, the Vols' recent rise, North's catch and their upcoming opponent, No. 1 Alabama.
I know the loss to Georgia was a tough one, but how big was it for you guys to come back and respond with the effort you did last week vs. South Carolina?
Worley: It was huge to be able to bounce back from narrowly losing to Georgia and then being able to transition and play the way we did against another top-tier opponent. Getting a win was huge for this team and this program. It just kind of shows how Coach [Butch] Jones has really come in and changed things and really taken things and run with them.
Speaking of Butch Jones, how has he changed the culture in Tennessee football?
Worley: He uses the term "championship habits." That's just what we do day in and day out. Our standards and expectations are playing with great effort and great strength, being a physical football team, a relentless team that's hungry for football every single day. I think him coming in and implementing things like that is really changing the culture around here and changed the outlook of our team.
At what point, whether it be in the spring, summer, fall camp or during this season, do you feel there was buy-in from the team on Jones?
Worley: I honestly think people bought in since Day 1. Coach Jones has done a great job of relating to the players and getting them to jump on board. In the season, I think after the Florida game, we knew that we really beat ourselves in that game and we knew that we had a great opportunity to win that game -- we just couldn't pull it out late in the game. I think guys started realizing that we're better than we thought we were and that -- and how we're playing now -- comes from the coaching staff. After the Georgia game I think everybody was just like 'Wow, we're right there; we're right where we need to be."
I know you've had ups and downs so far in your season. Give me an assessment for how you feel your season has gone and where you are right now.
Worley: I think it's been a learning process, coming in and starting as a freshman [in 2011] and having that opportunity, and then now being able to take the reins as a starter for [almost] every game this year. My thing from Week 1 to now has been a learning process but I think we've progressed well each and every week. We've gotten better each and every week, myself included, and hopefully it continues here in the next few weeks."
What are some of the things you worked on improving the most heading into this season?
Worley: One of the big things was just being able to manage the team and do what I need to do when situations present themselves. Taking care of the football. If a two-minute drive needs to be put together, be able to do that to the best of my ability. Over the course of the season, I think I needed to work on my accuracy and I think that comes along with being familiar with the receivers, knowing their breaking points, knowing their tendencies. I think that's been a work in progress through fall camp and now and I think that's gradually progressed as well.
A lot of people were impressed by the catch Marquez North made late against South Carolina. What was your take on it?
Worley: Honestly, I didn't see it because I had gotten hit and was on the ground, but after going back and watching it, it was an incredible catch. Great focus by Marquez and a great opportunity for him to make a play which he came through in the clutch and it was huge. We really needed that.
What does a play like that do for a team?
Worley: It turns the whole game around. It was third-and-10. I had just thrown two incompletions and you can feel the intensity and the air around you; it changed for the worse. To be able to get that completion on third down and have Marquez make a catch like that is huge for us.
Saturday's a big game against Alabama. What things do you guys have to do that you're focusing on?
Worley: We just have to play our football. We can't get wrapped up in who we're playing and the name around them. We've got to focus on ourselves and go out and put our standards on the line against theirs and hopefully we match up well.
Does the last two games you guys have played and the effort you were able to put forth help going into this week?
Worley: I think the confidence we gained from the past few weeks is definitely going to help us going into a game like this. Being able to go in and perform like we know how to.