By Brian Rice
Worley reclaimed the job he held for much of the 2013 season, until a thumb injury suffered against Alabama took him out of the lineup. With the performance of Joshua Dobbs down the stretch and the return of Nathan Peterman, coming off a thumb injury of his own during the 2103 season, a full quarterback competition in spring practice and training camp elevated all three players. Worley emerged from the competition ready to lead Team 118.
"He's earned the right to be the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee," Jones said. "It started in spring football and continued through training camp. This hasn't been putting together one or two practices, it's been an accumulation of reps since the spring. Justin is playing the best football he's played in a long time."
Worley has appeared in 17 games in his Tennessee career, including 10 starts. He started seven games in 2013 after winning the job in preseason camp before the season-ending injury in Tuscaloosa.
The senior from Rock Hill, South Carolina was playing perhaps the best football of his career at the time of the injury, having just led the Volunteers to an upset over his home state Gamecocks. That performance followed a near upset of No. 6-ranked Georgia two weeks prior. Over the two games, Worley threw for 394 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Jones described Worley's reaction as "typical Justin Worley-like" fashion, all business and ready to go to work.
"I just said `Thank you for the opportunity,'" Worley recalled of his meeting with Jones. "He was very complimentary of my play as of late, showing that it was my job to be the leader of the offense, my job to lead the team."
The work in summer sessions preparing for camp helped Worley develop chemistry with a group of receivers that features plenty of talent, even if short on experience. The leadership in those sessions with younger players impressed teammates.
"A big thing he was working on this offseason was his leadership," offensive lineman Mack Crowder said. "That's definitely carried over to the field. He's definitely taking command of the huddle. That's somebody that you want to block for, whenever he's just in there confident and knows what he's doing. It's a good feeling to be blocking for him."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian also cited the growth in leadership as Worley's biggest step forward.
"He started that really once last season ended, but there's definitely now a little more ownership to it," Bajakian said. "I think that's validated a little bit more. He can even grow a little more in that role."
Jones didn't have to remind Dobbs and Peterman that they needed to stay ready. All three started games in 2013 and all three have to prepare the same way every week.
"It's the theme in football, you're always one snap away," Jones said. "It's a challenge when you're the number two or number three because you have to prepare as if you're the starter, but your reps are cut. They're very prideful individuals, they're competitors and they understand."
Jones' message to Worley as the season opens was clear for the senior.
"He told me to put my head down and keep grinding," Worley said. "Don't lose sight of the competition aspect of it and to continue to be the leader I've been."