Justin Worley's big-game experience, senior leadership and calm demeanor under pressure will give him command of the Vols offense and the first snaps under center when Utah State comes to Knoxville on Aug. 31, 2014.
After claiming the starting quarterback position in 2013, Worley was on track for a serviceable season, throwing for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions before a thumb injury against Alabama sidelined him for the rest of the year.
But the stats don't show that Worley managed to do something no Tennessee quarterback has done since 2009: beat a ranked team.
First Tennessee Win Over a Ranked Team Since 2009
By leading the Vols to a last-second 23-21 win over No. 11 South Carolina on Oct. 19, 2013, Worley proved that he can step up when the pressure is right in his face—literally.
His 40-yard bomb late in the fourth quarter, thrown moments before getting flattened by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, was caught by Marquez North in dramatic fashion and led to Michael Palardy's game-winning field goal.
Just one week earlier, Worley almost led the Vols to an upset victory over No. 6 Georgia before losing, 34-31, in overtime. In both games, he turned in nearly error-free performances, throwing for a combined two touchdowns, 394 yards and no interceptions.
Despite his achievements in big games, Worley's fellow signal-callers aren't going to let him run away with the starting position without a fight.
Redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson may be the most talented quarterback on the Vols' roster, and both fans and media have speculated that he has the strongest arm out of the bunch.
In fact, head coach Butch Jones told Patrick Brown of the Chattanooga Times Free Press in August 2013 that Ferguson "stepped up" and "made some big throws" shortly after arriving on campus. Even Worley admitted he was impressed by his young teammate's arm strength.
Since then, Ferguson has continued to prove himself to coaches, teammates and onlookers in practice, but he appeared rattled and uncertain during the Orange and White game in April 2014, throwing an interception and fumbling after a blindside sack.
Despite his talent, his lack of in-game experience will keep the starting position out of his reach for another season.
After an impressive performance on the road against Alabama to replace an injured Worley, sophomore Joshua Dobbs showed that he wasn't quite ready for the spotlight by struggling to move the chains and throwing too many interceptions against Auburn and Vanderbilt.
However, his play against Kentucky to close out the Vols' season, which included 199 yards passing, two touchdown passes and a 40-yard touchdown run, is good reason to be optimistic about his future on Rocky Top.
Dobbs also appeared poised and greatly improved in the 2014 spring game, throwing crisp passes to his wide receivers and breaking several tackles on his way to the end zone on a busted play.
With Ferguson receiving a redshirt last season, Dobbs is a prime candidate to sit out in 2014 while he continues to develop and mature.
Nathan Peterman, the Vols' redshirt sophomore quarterback out of Fruit Cove, Fla., likely fell to the bottom of the pecking order after turning in a disastrous performance against the Florida Gators in 2013.
Peterman also suffered a serious thumb injury in the game that denied him the chance of redemption later in the season.
Although his debut in The Swamp was far from ideal, Peterman is the second-most experienced quarterback on Tennessee's roster.
Bouncing back from adversity and climbing the depth chart in 2014 isn't out of the question for the former 4-star recruit, per Rivals, but it won't be enough to unseat Worley.
It's Worley's Job to Lose
Of all the quarterbacks on the roster, Worley doesn't have the strongest arm, the quickest release or the fastest feet.
But with new offensive weapons surrounding him in 2014, Worley is poised to become the efficient, calm quarterback and the leader Tennessee needs to compete in the SEC and get back to its first bowl game since 2010.
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