KNOXVILLE -- Justin Worley admitted he was a little surprised when Tennessee's coaches told the freshman quarterback to enter the fourth quarter of the Volunteers' loss to Alabama two weeks ago.
The next day he was named the starter, and even when he was pulled after throwing two second-half interceptions in his first start, the Vols' coaching staff stuck with him as its starter.
"It really boosted my confidence," Worley said Saturday night after throwing for 291 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in UT's 24-0 win against Middle Tennessee State.
"It shows that they have faith in me, and I just have to make the best of the opportunity that I have now. When I got in the Alabama game, it hit me that was the first time I had played an actual opponent since the December before, so playing two games is some really good experience going forward. Being a true freshman, again, it'll help down the road."
The road is the next challenge for the 6-foot-4, 200-pound South Carolina native. Worley's third start will be Saturday against eighth-ranked Arkansas. The Southeastern Conference announced Sunday that the game will kick at 6 p.m. and be televised by ESPN2.
Worley and UT's offense enters the game with some confidence despite a scoreless second half for the fourth consecutive game and another poor performance running the football. Worley's nerves were gone, and he played closer to what UT coach Derek Dooley expected when he named him the starter in place of the ineffective Matt Simms.
"It's the game we were hoping he would play last week," Dooley said. "He was just one week late, but he performed the way we have seen in practice. He was very calm and composed. Still made some mistakes.
"He made a lot of good decisions, managed the offense well and we probably could have thrown another eight to 10 passes in the third quarter and he could have really had some big numbers. I'm really proud of him. He didn't let last week's performance affect him, he grew from it and played better."
UT's game plan, Worley said, included more short, quick passes to help get him going and boost his confidence early in the game. He found a groove during his 9-of-10 start, though he missed on some deep throws to open receivers throughout the game.
"We tried to help him last week, but we didn't help him too much," Dooley said. "He just played well. He played like the guy we signed and we thought he could be. He made some nice throws and good decisions. He still doesn't do some of the run stuff."
Worley's inexperience limits how much checking or adjusting he does at the line of scrimmage, and he's unable to read defensive fronts as well as Simms. Tight end Mychal Rivera did say Worley did more pre-snap audibles on Saturday than he did in his first start. Worley said his biggest adjustment simply has been adapting to the speed of the college game.
"[Quarterbacks] Coach [Darin] Hinshaw always stresses to me to play the speed of the game in practice," he said, "and that's been a big adjustment for me, is getting my feet faster and getting my reads quicker and not trying to force the ball. Grasping the speed of the game going through reads like we should, that's been a big adjustment to me. I've just had to come in and work on that."
Injured starter Tyler Bray gets the cast off his broken right thumb today, so the Vols should have a better gauge on how much longer the sophomore will be sidelined and, in turn, how much longer they'll need to depend on Worley. Doctors will examine how much Bray's thumb has healed and see how well he can grip a football.
At least for another week, though, Worley is the starter, and now he has some positives at which to look as he continues to prepare and develop.
"He had a lot of confidence, and that's one thing, I think I told you guys earlier in the week, he's practicing with confidence and that's translating into the game," Rivera said. "If you're a quarterback and you're confident and you've got the skills like Worley does, that's a good combination. Last week he was real nervous, there was a lot of pressure on him and it just wasn't a really good situation.
"We have a lot of confidence in Worley, and we have a high standard that we set for ourselves and everybody. When we don't play up to that standard, it's disappointing, but when we do, good things happen. He's growing up quickly and it's nice to see."