In a continuing effort to clarify the conversation about Justin Worley, I thought it might be helpful to make a more direct comparison between Worley and some of the names that are frequently mentioned in the same sentence. The Vol junior will start against South Alabama, with Nathan Peterman out with injury and the freshman duo of Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs now in full competition for the backup role and the future.
We haven't seen those two in action, though plenty of Tennessee fans are imagining and assuming greatness. We have seen Nathan Peterman in a real and terrible situation, and we've now seen Justin Worley in four games this season and several others from the past.
The conversation with Worley trends anywhere from "game manager" to "my grandma could do better". But when we compare what Worley is doing to the UT quarterbacks who have come before (since the Vols became elite again in 1989), can we gain any additional helpful perspective?
THE HEISMAN BRIDESMAIDS
10 - Peyton Manning 95-97
9 - Heath Shuler 93
Tennessee's favorite son is in the conversation for the greatest quarterback of all-time, and in his last three seasons in Knoxville he became the best quarterback in SEC history. Heath Shuler led what is still UT's highest-scoring offense in 1993, a dual threat who was drafted third the following spring. No arguments here.
THE GOOD QUARTERBACKS
First of all, if you'd like to debate about one of these guys being better than the other, okay. I'm fine with saying one of these guys is an 8.9 and one is an 8.1. But they were all consensus good college quarterbacks who led great offenses, won championships, or both. Any of us would take any of these guys between the lines in almost any given year.
7 - Heath Shuler 92, Peyton Manning 94, Tee Martin 98, Casey Clausen 00, Erik Ainge 04, Tyler Bray 10 & post-injury 11
Here's the group we're all hoping Riley Ferguson and/or Josh Dobbs can join. With each of these guys, you knew they were limited because they were first year starters. But you also knew they were something great just waiting to happen, and you saw flashes of that greatness alongside the freshman mistakes. Manning, Clausen, and Bray each put up gargantuan numbers as freshmen. Shuler and Ainge swept Georgia and Florida. And we all know what happened with Tee Martin's first season. These guys are proof that you can win with a young, inexperienced quarterback if you have the right pieces around them, notably a great run game for each of them...except Tyler Bray, who continues to be an example of how you have to have more than an elite passing game to win.
6 - Jonathan Crompton post-Georgia 09
This guy deserves his own category. I've never seen anything like this before or since, and don't know of many stories like it at other universities. We'll get into more numbers at the end of this post, but it's worth remembering here by itself that Crompton went from one of the most hated quarterbacks in UT history to 20 of 27 for 310 yards 4 TDs in the blink of an eye, then almost beat #1 Alabama with 21 of 36 for 265 in Tuscaloosa. The reason we don't expect to see an already-unlikely sudden change from Justin Worley is because Crompton already had the physical tools. It took him about 80% of his career to unleash it, but Crompton always had the gift. Does Worley? Does anyone on this roster?
DOING THE BEST THEY CAN
5 - AJ Suggs 00, Rick Clausen 04, Jonathan Crompton 06
4 - Rick Clausen 05, Nick Stephens 08, Matt Simms 10-11
The difference between the lines here is the talent around them. AJ Suggs almost beat Florida then tied the school completions record against Nick Saban's first LSU team. Suggs didn't play poorly enough to lose the job, his only crime was he wasn't Clausen, Casey. Clausen, Rick came in after injuries to Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge in 2004, couldn't pick up the pieces in time to beat Notre Dame, but rallied the Vols to high-octane wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, led the Vols to a near-miss against the undefeated Auburn juggernaut in the SEC Championship Game, then led a total beatdown of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Jonathan Crompton, freshman edition, also came in for an injured Ainge and almost beat a Top 10 LSU team before it went poorly at Top 15 Arkansas. The first three guys had great talent around them, even Suggs in a rebuilding year (back when those were defined by going 8-4). Rick Clausen had all kinds of talent around him the next year on defense, but the Vols never got going on offense and Clausen couldn't produce on his own. Nick Stephens was Clawfensed. And Matt Simms, though a current NFL backup, also struggled because the guys around him weren't quite good enough to help out enough to win.
MORE ATHLETE THAN QUARTERBACK
3 - Sterling Henton 89, Todd Helton 94, James Banks 02, Brent Schaeffer 04
Effective at times and capable of big plays, but none of these gentlemen were long-term answers at quarterback. I don't think anyone on our roster is going in this category.
2 - Joey Mathews 00, CJ Leak 02, BJ Coleman 08, Justin Worley 11
This category isn't always the kiss of death - BJ Coleman was on an NFL roster until a few weeks ago, and Worley has made his way back to the starting lineup - but these three are examples of guys being put in the fire that simply weren't capable of playing on even the game-manager level or producing anything of note offensively.
1 - Erik Ainge 05, Jonathan Crompton 08 & pre-Georgia 09
This is the category Nathan Peterman found himself in at The Swamp: much worse than ineffective are active turnover machines that hurt the Vols not just by what they lack but what they do with the football. No one disputes Ainge and Crompton always had much more potential than the guys at the "Not Ready" level, but on their way to that level these guys were total disasters. However, both recovered after being written off, which means there's certainly hope for Nathan Peterman at some point in the future.
So...where does Justin Worley fall on this list?
We're all pretty sure he's not going to find his way to 7 or above, and unless there's another Cromptonesque transformation, Worley 2013 may fit comfortably in the 4-5 range. And given the talent around him, that's going to drift lower right now.
How does Justin Worley compare to the guys in that range?
|W 1 L 3
|W 3 L 1
|W 2 L 5
|W 2 L 3
|W 2 L 5
|W 0 L 2
|W 2 L 1
Statistically, Worley fits into this group pretty comfortably. Most recently, he's been a little worse than Matt Simms in 2010 (remember, he played with Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, freshmen Da'Rick & Hunter, and Luke Stocker) and a little better than Simms in 2011. This graph will make you feel better about Rick Clausen...which probably makes you feel worse about Worley.
When these guys were successful it was due to great plays in the run game or from the defense, or by capitalizing and minimizing mistakes when the other team was feeling generous. Rick Clausen went 8 of 20 for 69 yards but didn't turn the ball over and did throw a touchdown in the 2004 SEC Championship Game, but unleashed the relative fury in the Cotton Bowl: 18 of 27, 222 yards, 3 touchdowns, no turnovers in a game that featured five for the opposition. Matt Simms in the 2010 LSU game: 12 of 23, 121 yards, no turnovers.
So history suggests for Justin Worley to lead us to a significant victory, barring a Cromptonesque leap, it's going to take a sensational effort from the ground game and/or the defense, or it's going to take a very clean game in the face of plenty of help from the opposition. This, again, is why Saturday's loss was frustrating, but moving forward Tennessee needs help across the board.
I'd put Worley in that 4 group. He's not the worst we've ever had, by far, and he generally takes care of the football and makes good decisions. But right now the things that limited Vol offenses in what were all frustrating years are limiting this Tennessee offense, and in particular the things defenses did to Rick Clausen - specifically sit back in coverage and dare him to beat them in 2005 - are things Justin Worley will have to deal with.
Can Justin Worley get us to six wins? I think he can. Can Justin Worley lead us to victory over Georgia, South Carolina, or Alabama? Not without help. And that was always the answer anyway.
The real question going forward is where will Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs fall on this list? Which means the most important question for the Vols in 2013 now is, "Will one of the freshmen overtake our game manager at some point this season? And if so, how soon?"