Wiedmer: Justin Worley the reasonable choice

Wiedmer: Justin Worley the reasonable choice

August 27th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley looks to pass against Vanderbilt in 2012.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee football coach Butch Jones didn't seem to be specifically talking about starting quarterback Justin Worley during Monday afternoon's media luncheon when he discussed emotional people.

Or was he?

Said Jones in explaining what he wants to see from the Volunteers in Saturday's season opener against Austin Peay: "I don't like emotional football teams; I don't like emotional people. If you show me an emotional football team, I will show you a football team that is up and down."

I ... don't ... like ... emotional ... people. If any single sentence may have perfectly framed why the junior Worley will start the first game of the Jones Era at UT, it might be that. If Worley's voice was hooked up to an EKG, he'd be pronounced dead. A pure flatliner. White bread's a red hot chili pepper next to Worley. The guy's demeanor often seems to fluctuate somewhere between a monk and a librarian.

Indeed, Jones' chief worry with Worley five days from the opener is that he doesn't talk loud enough on the field.

Said the player of that observation: "I wouldn't say it's that hard for me [being louder], but I think [Coach Jones] wants a little more."

The fans, of course, want a lot more from the coach, the quarterback, the backup punter. They want wins, and failing that, they want the losses to be laced with improvement from the three previous regimes.

Worley's brief career stats don't exactly scream of a player about to reverse the Vols' current run of three straight losing seasons. He's played in nine games, started three, throwing five interceptions to one touchdown. Whatever Worley's potential, his production has been mediocre at best.

Perhaps that's why Jones said Monday, "Our starting quarterback for Austin Peay will be Justin Worley."

Not, "Justin Worley is our starting quarterback." Just, "Our starting quarterback for Austin Peay ..."

So redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman conceivably could still win the job should Worley falter. So, too, either of the two true freshmen: Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs.

But to listen to Jones further explain this decision is also to appreciate that the new boss of the Big Orange made this choice not with emotion, but reason, including the not-so-insignificant reason that Worley is the only quarterback on the team who's experienced live college game action.

"It was an overall body of work," Jones said. "It was taking care of the football, and we charted anything and everything. We wanted to make the best educated decision for our football team and our football program, and it was taking care of the football. I think the game experience had a little bit to do with it as well."

There's also a possible unspoken reason here, one that all new coaches taking over an emotionally scarred team would do well to consider. In handing the most experienced player the ball to start the year, and also the player most believe to be one of this team's five or six most respected leaders on and off the field, Jones is telling his squad that if you work hard and work smart, if you play by the rules, good things can happen.

This is not to say Jones will leave Worley in that starting role for long if he fails to produce, but it is to say that the coach strongly believes that his junior QB richly deserves this opportunity.

The worrisome thing is, does this team really back the coach on this decision?

Asked about Worley being named the starter, senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said, "It really doesn't matter to us."

Asked if he thought Worley stood out and carried himself as a starter, James replied: "No, it's pretty close between everybody. Everybody's bringing different things to the table quarterback-wise."

The good news for the Big Orange Nation is that one of the Vols' best players and leaders believes UT has more than one quarterback capable of starting. The bad news is that at least one of the Vols' best players and leaders doesn't necessarily seem one thousand percent sold on Worley's skills set.

All of which gives one pause to recall such past UT early-season starting quarterbacks as Joey Mathews and Matt Simms, whose experience won them the job before their limited productivity sent them to the bench.

Perhaps that's why Jones also said: "I told [all the quarterbacks] that everything is judged by your productivity, so we will continue to really look at that position."

So will the UT fans, who, whether Jones likes it or not, will turn into really emotional people if Worley fails to deliver a victory against Austin Peay.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.