<strong>KNOXVILLE —</strong> Though he’s one-fourth of the Tennessee football team’s biggest August storyline, Justin Worley wants to avoid focusing on his position in the Volunteers’ wide-open quarterback competition.
Given head coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian’s plan of determining a starter, he hardly can afford to focus on anything other than himself.
A two-man race between Worley and Nathan Peterman turns into a four-man battle with the addition of freshmen Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson when UT opens practice on Friday, and Worley admitted Wednesday even he’s not sure what to expect.
“I think [Jones] just wants to see how fall camp plays out,” he said during the Vols’ preseason news conference. “That’s his decision to make. I think both Nathan and I played a high level of football, especially toward the end of spring, and we were pushing each other and bouncing things off each other.
“I think the competition was pretty strong. Coach Jones has kind of kept quiet, even with us, as well as with y’all. Hopefully one of us can put a foot forward and take strides.”
Jones declined to put a timetable on when he’d like to name his starting quarterback at least while the competition is close.
“If someone comes in and distances themselves and really takes hold of this football and is their leader,” he said, “we’re going to name a starting quarterback.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge is managing to get four quarterbacks equal reps. Jones conceded that the freshmen would receive fewer reps starting off, but he also quipped he was more concerned about sore arms than failing to give his four quarterbacks enough chances.
To best manage the crowded competition, Jones and his staff intend to “evaluate them in everything,” whether it be throwing passes on air, pass skeleton or full-speed 11-on-11 periods in practice.
Worley, who started three games as a freshman in 2011 and appeared in five games as Tyler Bray’s backup last season, believes he’s improved his leadership ability in addition to tweaking some mechanical aspects aimed at “trying to get the ball out a little quicker” and developing timing with a new crop of targets.
“I don’t know if there’s more pressure and anxiety,” he said. “I think I’m just ready to get things started. I know if I’m named the starter, there’s going to be more pressure, obviously, but I guess I’m trying to go through the process right now and take it a day at a time.”
UT’s coaching staff really pushed big defensive tackle Daniel McCullers to become a consistently disruptive force throughout spring practice.
Three months later, the Vols’ expectations for the 351-pound senior haven’t changed.
“We’ll be as good as Dan McCullers goes,” Jones said. “It is what it is, and I think Dan has had a great summer strength and conditioning season. He looks great. We talk all the time. I’m excited for him because he’s worked himself into having that opportunity to really make an impact.”
Jones later added that the preseason All-SEC third-team selection “has a quiet confidence about himself right now.”
The Lane back
Though Jones called the depth chart released on Tuesday “irrelevant,” he said tailback Marlin Lane, who doesn’t appear on the two-deep after ending spring practice under suspension for disciplinary reasons, has to earn his way back up the backfield pecking order.
“He’s done everything to warrant reinstatement to this football team,” the coach said, “but he also understands the expectations and the standards. He’s going to have to earn his way back. Nothing in this football program is given.
“It’s a right, it’s an honor and it’s a privilege to play for the University of Tennessee. He understands that, and he has to start rebuilding that trust with the coaching staff, his teammates. That started this summer.”
UT’s defensive backs are well aware of the statistics attached to their unit last season.
The Vols were 86th nationally in pass efficiency defense and allowed more than 282 yards per game, which ranked in the bottom 10 teams nationally.
Those numbers, and the perception that comes with it, are serving as motivation heading into this season.
“Before every single workout, we remind ourselves what people think about us,” said safety Brian Randolph, who declared himself “95 percent” healthy more than 10 months since tearing his ACL against Florida last September.
“We know that we’re not the weakness of the defense. Before we get out there and start working, we get together and remind ourselves that people consider us the worst secondary in the SEC. It’s been a motivator for us, and I think it got us better this offseason.”