KNOXVILLE — The growing list of lasts recently began striking Justin Worley's conscience.
Tennessee's senior quarterback wrapped up the final preseason training camp of his collegiate career earlier this week, and he'll play his final season opener in eight days when the Volunteers host Utah State at Neyland Stadium on a Sunday night.
Each day, Worley is getting closer to the close of his career, and it's caused him to get a little nostalgic.
"It's been a roller-coaster, I'll tell you that," a reflective Worley said following Friday's practice.
"From being the third-string guy my freshman year and not knowing a thing of the offense and getting thrown in against Alabama, South Carolina, Middle Tennessee State and then Arkansas, that was kind of eye-opening as a freshman. I didn't get as much playing time as I wanted sophomore year, then started off last year and was on the rise and hurt my thumb.
"It's been a roller-coaster, but I don't regret anything, and I wouldn't change anything. It's been a great experience."
Worley still has the chance to make it a better one.
After clinching Tennessee's starting job late last week, he enters the season still needing to prove himself after an otherwise nondescript career.
An injury to starter Tyler Bray and Matt Simms' ineffectiveness prompted the Vols to turn to the true freshman midway through the 2011 season, and Worley won one of his three starts. He threw three interceptions in the two losses, to top-15 opponents South Carolina in Arkansas.
Aside from being randomly thrown into the first half of former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley's final game at Vanderbilt in 2012, Worley primarily played in garbage time as a sophomore.
Last season, Worley won the job in preseason, lost it after three games, regained it and helped Tennessee to a near-upset of Georgia and an upset of South Carolina before the thumb injury derailed his season.
His career numbers -- 11 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, three 2oo-yard games in 10 starts and a completion rate of 56.2 percent -- are rather mundane, but Worley can change that with a strong 2014.
"I think it's easy to get a little lethargic if you have a strong junior year, and you kind of see some of these guys that maybe could have left and come back and aren't as successful as they're hoping to be," he said. "I don't think that's the case for myself. I'm hungry, and I want to go out and prove that we can win some football games, some big-time football games.
"I think we've got the team around us to do it."
His supporting cast long expected throughout the offseason that Worley would be the one commanding the huddle when the season arrived, and that's partly because the 6-foot-4, 230-pound South Carolina native carried himself like the starter.
"I think some of us knew who was going to be the starting quarterback, and we all looked at Justin as the starting quarterback," sophomore receiver Josh Smith said.
"Nothing really changed with Justin. Justin's always been Justin. He's always been that leader, always been that guy we looked to, and I think he likes that role. I think he's going to come out firing."
Worley all but admitted to consciously carrying himself as Tennessee's starting quarterback even while the competition with Nathan Peterman, Josh Dobbs and, at one point, Riley Ferguson remained unsettled.
"You have to have confidence," he said. "I've got some great people around me. My family does a great job of keeping my spirits high. I feel like they should be. They're there to help, but you always have to have confidence, whether you're the starter or not. I would say all three of us carry ourselves with confidence and know that we can play."
Center Mack Crowder said Worley began picking up his leadership and showing "more command" of Tennessee's offense midway through training camp after he, Peterman and Dobbs all got off to sluggish starts.
"In the huddle, [he's] being more positive," Crowder said. "He's coming up to us after a hard drive or something like that and saying, 'Hey, man, let's go, it's time to start stepping up right here,' [and] having our backs and getting us ready to go for each drive. At the line of scrimmage he's been doing a better job of making the calls loud, being very positive."
Smith echoed Crowder's comments.
"Justin has taken that role and ran with it," Smith said. "He's become more of a leader, and I just feel that he's more confident now that he's gotten the quarterback spot. I love Justin, and I know what he can do.
"I'm proud of him, and I can't wait for the season."
It's his last one.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...