Having paid his dues during a rocky first year on Rocky Top, however, Justin Worley believes he's ready to exhibit at the college level the skills that made him such a high-profile quarterback at the high school level. Twelve months and three starts in Tennessee's system have him excited about his future.
"It's made a world of difference," he said following Tuesday's practice. "Everything's a little slower, and my comfort level is up. Those three games of experience have helped a ton this spring."
Facing a steep learning curve last fall, Worley seemed destined to spend the 2011 season as the No. 3 quarterback behind rocket-armed sophomore Tyler Bray and senior backup Matt Simms. Bray fractured his right thumb in Game 5 against Georgia, however, then Simms struggled in Game 6 and 7 losses to LSU and Alabama. As a result, Worley found himself starting Game 8 against South Carolina, despite having never thrown a pass in a college contest.
Facing one of the top five defenses in college football, Worley's debut was predictably underwhelming: He completed just 10 of 26 passes for 105 yards with two interceptions against the Gamecocks. He redeemed himself a week later, however, by connecting on 23 of 32 attempts for 291 yards and a touchdown in a 24-0 defeat of Middle Tennessee. Following a half-decent effort (15 of 29 for 208 yards) in a Game 10 loss at Arkansas, he handed reins back to Bray.
"Now I know I can make plays at this level," he said. "Granted, we lost two of the three games (he started), but just knowing that I can do what I need to do has helped a lot this spring."
Head coach Derek Dooley noted earlier this spring that Tennessee has three quality quarterbacks, and Worley concedes as much. Mid-term freshman Nathan Peterman is pushing the two veteran QBs.
"There's going to be competition," Worley said. "Nathan's bringing competition. I'm bringing competition, and Tyler Bray's raising the bar every day. It's helped a lot, having that experience."
Peterman is performing so well in practice that Worley finds himself looking over his shoulder on occasion.
"Of course," he said. "Nathan's brought it every day, and he's a great quarterback. He's pushing me and I'm pushing Tyler. Overall, we're all pushing everybody."
One huge advantage for Worley in fending off Peterman is having a year of college experience behind him. Basically, he has passed classes that Peterman has yet to take. One lesson, in particular, has contributed to Worley's development.
"Just to stay calm," he said. "I rushed a few things when I was playing. I've learned how to be a leader a little better, and this position requires that. Coach Chaney has really pressed me and Tyler into being more leaders this year."
Whether Bray, Worley or Peterman is playing quarterback, he'll be throwing to perhaps the most talented receiving trio in college football. Da' Rick Rogers produced more than 1,000 receiving yards as a sophomore last fall. Justin Hunter was on his way to an even bigger year before tearing an ACL. Junior college superstar Cordarrelle Patterson will be joining the mix in August.
Worley knows Patterson quite well. They were teammates at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, S.C., three years ago.
"Oh, he's a great athlete, and I'm so excited that he came here," Worley said. "I can't wait to see him in June. He brings size, speed ... the whole nine yards. I'm excited to get him in the mix with Da'Rick and Justin."