KNOXVILLE - For better or worse, Justin Worley is Tennessee's starting quarterback.
First-year Volunteers coach Butch Jones was asked twice during and after Saturday's 31-24 win against South Alabama -- first by SEC Network sideline reporter Cara Capuano at halftime and in his postgame media session -- if he'd given consideration to making a change or playing one of his two freshmen quarterbacks.
The answer was the same both times.
With that the case, Worley must play better than he has so far this season with the Vols in SEC play for the rest of the way.
"I'm proud of Justin," Jones said. "Playing quarterback at the University of Tennessee, there's a lot that comes with that. He's learning as we go, but I thought he showed some resiliency today."
After a slow start, Worley found his rhythm and completed six of his next seven passes and threw a pair of touchdown passes. On Tennessee's four touchdown drives, the junior was 8-of-10 passing for 101 yards and the two scores and added two runs for 23 yards.
For the rest of the afternoon, Worley completed just 12 of 26 passes for 103 yards and three interceptions.
"It started off with the playcalling," he said. "Coach Jake [offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian] had a really good scheme going into the game, and we really came out after the first couple of drives and started executing it and converted on some third downs to help with my confidence as well as the offense's. Getting in that groove was good.
"We came out in the third quarter and marched down the field and scored, and then it kind of fell off. We've got to work on being a little bit more consistent through the long run."
Worley's first interception came on a forced throw into triple coverage down the seam. The second one, with the Vols 4 yards from the end zone, was much more costly.
On the play, Pig Howard appeared stopped his route short as Worley threw it to where he thought his receiver would be, and a South Alabama defender was there instead.
"Throwing a pick, especially in the end zone when we're driving late in the second quarter, it hurts, and yeah, it kind of rattles you a little bit," Worley said.
"I felt we bounced back the first drive of the third quarter and responded well, responded how we should have."
The second half was sloppy for Tennessee's entire offense, but Worley completed just five passes, though one was a key third-down conversion to Jason Croom on a play that gained 22 yards.
Worley twice misfired on passes intended for an open Howard and Marquez North, and his third interception, which came on a tipped pass, swung the game's momentum.
The Vols' wideouts also contributed to their quarterback's struggles. When Worley threw deep to North against single coverage, the freshman wasn't running full speed, and receivers coach Zach Azzanni intensely greeted him when he returned to the sideline. Josh Smith dropped a third-down pass after Worley hit him right in the numbers.
The Neyland Stadium crowd groaned after some of Worley's early incompletions, and what was left of it moaned during the later ineffectiveness, but Jones said he was never close to making a switch to either Riley Ferguson or Josh Dobbs.
"When they're ready to play, they'll be ready to play," he said of the freshmen.
"We live in a week-to-week society of college football and it's all about winning this game," he continued. "If I had put one of the freshmen in and we'd lost the game, y'all would sitting in here saying to me, 'Why did you put the freshman in?' That's the beauty of your pen, the power of second-guessing. I've always learned to go with my gut instinct."
When Jones chose to start Nathan Peterman instead of Worley at Florida, the decision backfired.
The coach acknowledged the Vols' need to prepare Ferguson and Dobbs since one of them is a snap or lost helmet away from making their college debuts.
"I want to make sure they're ready to go," Jones said. "Yeah, we do have to get them reps, but this is the first week. We tried to simulate as many game-like conditions in practice, and we'll continue to do that.
"At the end of the day, I believe in Justin. Even throughout the course of the game, Justin needs as many repetitions, just like the freshmen do. As much as repetitions he can gain, the better as well."
Worley is glad to have his coach's confidence.
"I appreciate that out of him," he said. "I know all four of us, Nathan included, put both him and Coach Jake in a bind because of our progression in the offensive scheme and how we've done in practice, but hearing him say that he's got my back like that -- that means a lot."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.