Derek Dooley talks about Justin Worley
KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley is acting on just a little more than hunch.
Tennessee's second-year football coach knows the Volunteers need better quarterback play, but he doesn't have much on which to evaluate Justin Worley.
He'll find out about the true freshman Saturday when the Vols host 14th-ranked South Carolina.
"We're going to start Justin at quarterback," Dooley announced at his weekly news conference early Monday afternoon. "I just feel like that for us to go out and try to win games, we're not throwing and catching the way we need to and we're not calling the game the way we want to. We just need to make this move. I feel like it's the right one.
"It's not something that's done on a whim. We have a lot of data to make a switch, [but] we don't have a lot of data on Justin."
Worley played just four snaps in his first career action last Saturday in UT's loss at second-ranked Alabama, and the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder did not attempt a pass. He replaced senior starter Matt Simms, who was filling in for the injured Tyler Bray.
Dooley cautioned that this move is unlike the decision to start Bray in the second half of last October's loss to the Gamecocks. Bray enrolled early at UT like Worley, but he was the backup quarterback from the start unlike Worley, who was the third quarterback until Bray's injury. Bray also had played in a couple of games before taking over the starter's job for good.
"I don't know what it's going to look like on Saturday," Dooley admitted. "Last year I felt like I knew what I was going to see. This year I'm not sure, but I think it's the right thing to do.
"We've seen a big difference in [Worley] since Tyler got hurt. Before Tyler got hurt ... we massaged him a little bit more because he wasn't one snap away, but the last couple of weeks we've pushed him pretty hard and he's responded well. He has a lot of good qualities. You'll see them on Saturday."
Tailback Tauren Poole noted that Worley didn't look nervous when he took the first-team reps for the first time during Sunday's practice.
"He throws it well and he's confident in his arm, confident in his ability, confident in us," Poole said. "He's a humble guy. Humble doesn't mean you're going to win football games, but hopefully he'll step in and do a good job. I'll continue to reiterate to him that we believe in him and we believe in whoever's back there."
Simms, who was benched in favor of Bray after eight starts last season, has struggled in his two starts, albeit against teams that are first (Alabama) and third (LSU) nationally in total defense. The senior completed just 14 of his 37 passes with three interceptions and a fumble to no touchdowns.
Dooley said telling Simms a second time that he'd lost his job was "probably the hardest part" of a coach's job. The decision to see what Worley can do couldn't have been much easier considering the Vols' original plan was to redshirt him.
"Quite frankly we didn't want to play Justin this year," Dooley said. "I didn't want to play him, but I believe that's what we need to do to try and win the game. I may be wrong. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong."
The Vols' coaches have liked Worley's dedication to learning the offense since his arrival in January. The former consensus three-star prospect out of Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, S.C., was the national Gatorade Player of the Year last season when he threw for 5,315 yards and a state-record 64 touchdowns.
Worley threw for 13,322 yards and 156 touchdowns in three high-school seasons, but it came in a pass-heavy spread offense where he was in the shotgun and threw quick passes every play. Worley has had to make some technical and mechanical adjustments in UT's more traditional offense.
"That's what Justin wanted," Dooley said. "He could have easily picked a team that was a spread team, but I think that just kind of shows you the kind of guy he is. He believed in our program, but he also wanted to play in that kind of offense. I'm sure he has dreams one day wants to get in there and learn it, and he's done well."
Now the Vols will see how Worley handles his first week of practice as the starter, the lights of Neyland Stadium on Saturday night and a South Carolina defense that's ranked seventh nationally in total defense. Ellis Johnson, the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator, "will be licking his chops," Dooley said.
"I have a really good feeling about him," tight end Mychal Rivera said of Worley. "He's a real committed player, and any time you've got a really committed player like that who's very confident, I feel he's going to do really good in the game."
Said Poole: "He learned the offense, he knows what's going on and he's going to have to show that. It's easy to do in practice, but it's harder to do it in the game when the scheme's coming at you and the speed's coming at you. We'll see on Saturday."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...