From the moment that Tyler Bray declared himself eligible for the 2013 NFL Draft last December, it seemed inevitable that former Gatorade National Player of the Year Justin Worley would be named the starter.
He was highly recruited and set national records at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, SC. He’d been the backup to Bray since arriving on campus in the spring of 2011 and had started three of the nine contests he’d appeared in, with all three starts coming in 2011.
His experience gave him the edge over Nathan Peterman, a redshirt freshman who was the only other quarterback on campus this spring, and having had an extra semester in Butch Jones’ offense gave him the schematic edge over Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs, the two uber-talented freshman who arrived this summer. Yet, despite being afforded every advantage, it wasn’t made official until earlier today when the Tennessee Volunteers released their depth chart for the first game of the season against Austin Peay.
Now, it may have taken this long for Worley to win the job in an effort to foster a competitive atmosphere. No sense naming Justin Worley the starter early and allowing him to be content or even complacent as he bought into the “heir apparent” label.
However, it may have also been because now was Justin Worley’s time to earn the job.
In 2011, his role was essentially de facto backup. Tyler Bray was injured and Matt Simms had proven himself inept. In the spring, with only two quarterbacks on campus, he took first-team reps out of necessity–he was the lone upperclassmen quarterback, the only one with experience leading an offense that desperately needed leading as it became acclimated to Butch Jones’ system.
It also could have been because Worley never really separated himself from the competition.
Justin Worley was given first-team reps at every juncture throughout the spring and summer, and for whatever reason, the one guy with starting experience couldn’t separate himself from three freshman who, despite their impressive individual skill sets, were erratic in their performance.
Yes, perhaps Justin Worley, the lone upperclassmen and the only player with starting experience, simply didn’t take control of the starting job in a manner that Butch Jones thought warranted being named the starter. However, regardless of the reason, Justin Worley is now the starting quarterback of the Tennessee Volunteers.
It’s a responsibility that has been bestowed upon some legends of the SEC. It’s a responsibility that now opens up Worley to a new world of criticism and, should he succeed, adulation.
However, while Justin Worley will ultimately be judged on things that are both in his control (like his performance) and out (like Tennessee’s win-loss record), it’s important to understand his role at this junction in Tennessee football history. It’s important to temper expectation without allowing him to shirk responsibility.
On Saturday, Justin Worley will usher in the Butch Jones era at the University of Tennessee. He’ll have an offense that is equal parts experienced and young. His offensive line might be the best in the country, and his listed starters at wide receiver have combined for 54 career receiving yards.
It’s a delicate situation. On one hand, Worley should have plenty of time within the confines of the pocket and a decent running game. On the other, despite the athleticism, his receiving corps might not be able to get open. After all, getting open in the SEC against SEC defenses is less a function of talent than it is understanding the craft.
So what exactly should you expect from Justin Worley? What’s reasonable and what’s not?
Well, in the case of Worley, reasonable is to expect him to protect the football and operate within the constraints of what Butch Jones is asking him to do. What Butch Jones is asking him to do is to command the huddle and make good decisions.
Justin Worley might never lead Tennessee to a championship like Tee Martin or throw for 30+ touchdowns like Tyler Bray. He might never play well enough to feel like he can stop looking over his shoulder at the three talented freshman that pursue him.
Yet, if he can lead this football team and make the right play, he is plenty good enough to lead Tennessee to a bowl game. And, as sad as it is to say about a place with so much tradition, a bowl game probably sounds pretty darn good in Knoxville about now.
It’s certainly possible, although, far from inevitable.