Why SEC Needs to Fear Tennessee's Justin Worley, Marquez North Connection

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2014

Sep 6, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Justin Worley (14) drops to pass the ball against the Arkansas State Red Wolves during the first quarter at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

With his receiving weapons falling and offensive line collapsing all around him, Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley always found solace looking North—as in receiver Marquez North.

The 6'4", 221-pound sophomore wideout doubled his touchdown production from a season ago on Saturday, hauling in two scores on his way to 68 yards on four catches.

The performance helped the Vols get past a pesky Arkansas State team 34-19 in Neyland Stadium in a win that could prove extremely costly.

Starting receiver Von Pearson and tight end Ethan Wolf went down with lower-leg injuries that both looked nasty. That's two newcomers who have been major cogs to UT's power-spread offense so far. 

While the speculation festers until official news on the injuries comes, Vols fans can at least breathe a sigh of relief with the Worley-to-North connection.

The senior quarterback and his big target are getting into a rhythm, and the rest of the SEC should be concerned.

That hookup was the biggest positive on a shaky, worrisome day for a young team. Through the struggles, Worley's senior leadership was vitally important in a game that kept looking like it may get close.

Despite all that youth, Worley and North are entering their second season as a tandem, and the Vols must lean on them moving forward. Both are getting much more comfortable and consistent on a down-to-down basis.

With three weeks until the SEC schedule kicks off for UT, the duo will only continue to marinate. They'll get thrown into the pressure cooker in Norman, Oklahoma, next week against the Sooners.

Though he had a couple of late hiccups with ball security—throwing an interception on an acrobatic pick by Money Hunter and dropping a fumble that was recovered by UT—Worley shone. It's obvious he is growing in coordinator Mike Bajakian's offense.

His growth through two games from a season ago is impressive. The interception was his first in 70 attempts.

With UT's defense getting hit in the mouth with an early score, the offense took over. Worley hit his first 10 passes and took over the game.

The senior quarterback finished with 247 passing yards, the third-highest total in his career, completing 22 of 38 passes. On a highlight-reel day, though, the biggest play came when he found North for his second touchdown.

From the 14-yard line, Worley stepped into his throw to a streaking North. With a defender running alongside his target, Worley made the pass to North's back shoulder, a location where only the receiver could make a play on the ball. The huge receiver used his size to muscle into position to make the catch and got his foot down for a score.

It was a NFL-caliber play and could be a glimpse of things to come this season.

North's athleticism was on full display, but defenses will be able to show him a little extra attention if Wolf and Pearson are sidelined for some time.

Another big concern for UT is that revamped offensive line. Along with another mediocre day rushing, Worley also was often under duress.

His calmness under pressure was another reason why Worley's maturation was evident. The numbers would have been even better had the senior had more time to read through his progressions and let plays develop downfield, but that may not be a luxury the Vols get this season.

Instead, Worley meticulously took what the Red Wolves gave him, hitting nine different receivers. He led four scoring drives over 70 yards, and UT was 6-of-7 in red-zone attempts with Worley at the helm.

Still, UT has to get its offensive line situation straightened out in a hurry. At one point midway through the third quarter, Worley was hit throwing the ball and got up hobbling.

He came back into the game, but that's something UT can't have happen, especially now that it looks like the Vols are going to be finding other weapons while Wolf and Pearson recover.

Worley's calm command of the offense kept things level.

Sep 6, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones during the second quarter against the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

North also came down awkwardly on the sideline in the third quarter and wasn't as much of a factor afterward.

The Vols have to get several things corrected offensively, but they've also got to keep looking in North's direction. A year ago, he led the team in receiving yards as a freshman, and it's obvious he knows much more what he's doing now.

As the worries mount, Tennessee has to focus on the playmakers it does have. Running back Jalen Hurd looked capable of moving the chains, getting most of his 83 rushing yards late. Josh Smith and Josh Malone need to step up and take some pressure off Worley.

But North is the bell cow. He had one of the biggest days of his career, and though the numbers weren't gaudy, the the results were impressive.

When the Vols needed touchdowns, they went to North.

It's something that should become a trend this season. North is special, and his big-play knack is becoming more and more evident—even to former Vols who played in the NFL.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics gathered from UTSports.comBrad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:

@Brad_Shepard