Tennessee head coach Butch Jones went with the safe pick this summer when he tabbed senior Justin Worley as the starting quarterback for the Vols in 2014.
A funny thing happened on Sunday night in the 38-7 win over Utah State, though. Worley didn't look just like a game manager, he looked like a difference-maker.
Sure, he made the smart throws and checked down when he should, but he also dropped balls in buckets downfield, tossed three touchdowns and at one point completed 13 straight passes—the fourth-best mark in program history, surpassing some guy named "Peyton Manning."
He finished the day 27-of-38 for 273 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, adding 14 yards on the ground.
"Justin was calm and collected and he acted like he had been there before," head coach Butch Jones said in quotes released by Tennessee. "He was kind of a calming presence on the sideline. I thought our receivers, for the most part, did a good job of catching the football. They made some really good catches to extend drives and we haven't had that in the past, so it was great to see as well."
What's more impressive from Worley is that he spread his 28 completions around to 11 different receivers, including three to junior college transfer Von Pearson and two each to freshmen Josh Malone and Jalen Hurd.
"We have some playmakers across the board, from a tight end standpoint to receivers and running back," Worley said in quotes released by Tennessee. "You can't focus on one guy. There are several guys that we can attack you with."
Worley showed poise in the pocket, spreading the ball around to different receivers and consistently making the right decision, not the risky decision.
Those sound like veteran moves, and it proves that Jones made the right decision when he chose Worley over sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman.
Tennessee is going to have great moments—like Sunday's demolition of the clearly undermanned Aggies. They also played 21 true freshmen in the opener, which suggests that they're going to have some inconsistency—particularly when you have five new starters on the offensive line.
We saw glimpses of that early against Utah State.
Protection breakdowns happen, but he didn't force risky passes, bought time with his legs and ran when appropriate.
"He did have a good feel for the rush," Jones said in the postgame quotes. "We always talk about having a high-vision quarterback when the protection breaks down and I thought he kept some plays alive with his legs, whether it was a scramble on the perimeter or picking up some valuable yardage with his legs."
Does that mean Tennessee is back?
That remains to be seen. While Utah State has been a solid program recently, they did have just eight total starters returning combined on offense and defense, and quarterback Chuckie Keeton didn't exactly get a lot of help around him.
What it does mean for the Vols, though, is that Worley won't make boneheaded decisions and help dig the offense a hole.
That's a good sign for the future, and it could be enough to get the Vols back to a bowl game.
With a roster littered with youth, getting those extra bowl practices would add a lot of bricks to that foundation Jones has been laying since taking over prior to the 2013 season.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, and co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93 XM 208. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
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