Buy or Sell: A panel of experts discusses storylines from the Vols upcoming game
David Climer / The Tennessean
In the SEC, we're always looking for the next big thing.
The next national champion. The next Heisman Trophy winner. The next freshman phenom.
But there's something to be said for seeing a familiar face in certain situations.
Justin Worley is a case in point. With all the transition at Tennessee in the last handful of seasons, Worley brings a certain sense of stability to the Vols quarterback position.
Granted, Worley doesn't have the star power or the NFL future of some of his predecessors at the position. His career accomplishments are rather modest.
But in Week 1, Worley ran the UT offense efficiently in the Vols' 38-7 blitz of Utah State. He threw for a career-best 273 yards and completed 13 consecutive passes during one stretch, the fourth-longest streak in UT history.
In time, coaches will ask more of Worley. Opposing defenses will start taking away the quick throws to the perimeter and force him to go downfield more. For now, though, he's doing precisely what is being asked.
"He managed the football game," said Vols offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
It is stacking up as the year of the survivalist quarterback in the SEC. While sophomore Kenny Hill made a splash in his first career start for Texas A&M and Anthony Jennings, another sophomore, appears to be settling in at LSU, the bulk of SEC teams are counting on the collegiate version of senior citizens.
Worley is one. Bo Wallace of Ole Miss is another. And don't forget Nick Marshall at Auburn.
The list goes on. Fifth-year senior Hutson Mason proved he could hand the ball off with the best of them in Georgia's impressive victory over Clemson. South Carolina's Dylan Thompson threw for four touchdowns in the opening loss to Texas A&M. Blake Sims surprised many by beating out Florida State transfer Jacob Coker as Alabama's starting quarterback.
And is there more of a survivor in the SEC than Florida's Jeff Driskel, a fourth-year junior?
As for Worley, he has never flinched. He started three games as a true freshman in 2011, barely played as a sophomore and was all over the map in an inconsistent 2013.
Along the way, Worley has been an easy target for criticism, but UT's offensive struggles last year were not necessarily his fault. Because of recruiting breakdowns in recent years, the Vols were short on offensive playmakers. Worley's options in the passing game were limited.
That's changed. Last Sunday evening, Worley completed passes to five wide receivers and three tight ends. Compared to last season, the deep, talented receiver pool is almost an embarrassment of riches.
"We have some playmakers across the board, from a tight end standpoint to receivers and running backs," Worley said. "You can't focus on one guy. There are several guys we can attack you with."
Just as important, he avoided mistakes.
"First and foremost, not turning the ball over is critical," Bajakian said. "When you turn the ball over, I don't care how well or poorly you're doing offensively, you have a chance to win. So walking out of that game with zero turnovers was great not just for Justin but for our offense."
Worley also kept the offense moving at a quick pace. UT coach Butch Jones has stressed the importance of getting lined up, getting a play called and getting the ball snapped in short order to put pressure on the defense. Against Utah State, the Vols snapped the ball with more than 20 seconds left on the play clock a total of 20 times.
"That's as fast as we've moved since I've been here," Bajakian said.
It was a continuation of how Worley performed in the preseason. Although coaches opened up competition for the starting spot, Worley quickly took the lead over Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs and never looked back.
"He played winning football at the quarterback position," Jones said. "He managed the offense."
He's a survivor in a conference that tests your survival instincts every Saturday.