KNOXVILLE - Justin Worley feels he's played pretty well during the season's first two games, but the Tennessee quarterback knows how and where he needs to improve.
And as long as he's taking those steps, the Volunteers' coaches will continue to trust him as their starter.
The 6-foot-4, 222-pound junior said earlier this week he's still trying to develop better timing with his receivers and throw more accurate passes, and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian echoed that statement following Wednesday's practice.
Overally progress is the biggest thing Bajakian wants to see from his quarterback.
"As long as we see improvement in certain aspects of the game, that's a good thing," the coordinator said. "I think he's continually getting better. He's looking to improve every week. I know that. He's very driven, he's always asking the right questions and always looking to get better.
"Justin can make all the throws that we ask him to make, and I'll continue to dial his number up when we need it."
With Tennessee's schedule hitting its most brutal stretch starting Saturday at second-ranked Oregon, the Vols certainly need more from Worley.
As he did following the opener against Austin Peay, Worley said he needs to become more accurate. He threw high for Jason Croom and behind Josh Smith in the first quarter against Western Kentucky, and he's underthrown a few of his deep passes, though pressure affected a couple of them.
One example: on a play-action rollout to his left against Western Kentucky, Worley threw short and behind freshman Marquez North, who was running back across the field and made a circus catch on the eventual touchdown drive.
"I think [it's] delivering the ball where a receiver can run with it," he said. "A couple of throws in the past two weeks I've missed. I know Marquez, I missed him. He made a great catch, and I was getting hit, but I still could have delivered the ball maybe a little bit earlier where he could have just walked in the end zone."
Though Bajakian said he's still trying to clean some up some mechanical things with Worley, he added it's mostly the timing with a new group of receivers that's affecting Worley's accuracy.
As the competition level rises, throws late or behind receivers could turn into interceptions. Perhaps more importantly, though, the Vols will need to hit on passing plays when they're open, particularly if defenses gear their game plans to stop Tennessee's running game.
"As is always the case," Bajakian said, "we've just got to play pitch and catch when it's there. As windows close more quickly, whether it's man coverage or zone coverage, we have to have better ball location. I'd say that's the No. 1 improvement he needs to make."
Oregon's secondary, led by cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, will be the first test for Worley, who has a pretty secure lead on backup Nathan Peterman. The Ducks intercepted Virginia three times last weekend, and their potent offense turned all three into touchdowns.
The Ducks led the country in interceptions last season with 26.
Asked if he knows he needs to up his performance with a tough schedule ahead, Worley replied, "Of course.
"I can't go in and force balls and things like that, trying to make the play," he added. "I need to play within myself and just manage the offense and keep the chains moving."
Under its current construction, Tennessee's offense doesn't rely on Worley as much as it did on Tyler Bray last season, but the Vols need Worley to make the plays when they're there, avoid mistakes and control the offense, whether it's checking into the right play, correctly adjusting pass protections or avoiding game-management penalties.
"We're always pushing him, and you're right, he is even-keeled and that's what we want," Bajakian said. "We want our guys to never be too high nor too low, so he does a good job of having a solid temperament about him. But we're always on him to improve, and he has that mentality, too, so it's not like we have to push him that hard."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.