KNOXVILLE -- Justin Worley possesses a unique ability that could be considered deception.
Most quarterbacks use practice repetitions to improve their play in games, but the Tennessee freshman's abilities during the week actually might have hindered him Saturday night in his first start, when he was pulled following two second-half interceptions in the Volunteers' loss to South Carolina.
"We've got to do a better job of trying to keep it simple for him," coach Derek Dooley said at his weekly news conference Monday. "We might have put too much on him as coaches, and that's always the first thing we do is, 'Where did we screw up?'
"We probably put too much on him when I look back on it, just because he gives you that confidence. He handles it well in practice, but you just forget what it's like when you step out there for the first time."
Dooley said the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder will get his second career start when the Vols host Middle Tennessee State this Saturday night. The Blue Raiders are 90th nationally in passing-efficiency defense, so this is an opportunity for Worley to face an easier defense than the one he saw against South Carolina.
The Vols have scored just 16 points in their last three games, though, forcing Dooley repeatedly to lament the offense's inability to simply "throw and catch."
Dooley acknowledged last week when he announced Worley as the starter over senior Matt Simms that he didn't have much data on Worley. His performance Saturday (10-of-26 passing for 105 yards) was apparently enough to sway Dooley to stick with the freshman.
"We feel like that he's, in practice, certainly, delivered the ball very well and more consistently, more accurately," Dooley said. "I don't want to get into comparing the two. Matt does some things better than Justin, and really a lot of it is unknown what [Worley] does better. We just made the decision to go with Justin based on how we've performed as a unit when Matt has been in there."
The biggest difference between the two quarterbacks is administratively in terms of managing the offense, which is expected given Simms' experience advantage. Both Dooley and tailback Tauren Poole noted Simms' ability to help the Vols get into the right plays in the running game. The Vols are limited with the number of checks and audibles at the line with Worley in the game, and there were some issues with the new cadence Saturday.
After completing just four of his first 11 passes and missing on some throws, Worley settled in during the second quarter and delivered strikes on a pair of seam routes to DeAnthony Arnett, a curl to Da'Rick Rogers and a deep pass that would have been a touchdown had Rogers caught it.
"I felt confident in him," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "He looked confident; he went out there and he tried to lead us. I feel like for his first game, he did a pretty good job. He wasn't really down on himself [after the interceptions]. We as an offense tried not to let him get down on himself and kept encouraging him to go out there and play."
Dooley said he told Worley when he pulled him, a decision he made because he was "trying to win the game," that he'd be back as the starter. James said Worley's calmness is similar to that of Tyler Bray, whose thumb injury has the Vols juggling their quarterback situation.
"He's got a good demeanor. He's not an emotional guy, but he was disappointed in how he played," Dooley said. "He knows he didn't play well. He'll bounce back."
Given the uncertainty of Bray's return, Worley's play -- and Dooley's decision to start him and stick with him -- could be the determining factor in the Vols' pursuit of bowl eligibility in the season's final month.
"I don't know what the result would have been if I didn't start him," Dooley said. "If I knew the result was we would have won the game, then, yeah, it was a terrible decision. If the result was going to be the same, I don't know. If we would have got blown out, then it was a good call.
"I don't know what the answer is, but I can't look back now. I guess only time will answer that question."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.