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Tennessee vs Utah State: All Eyes on Justin Worley

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The season opener features a returning quarterback on the other sideline and plenty of new faces in orange, but much of the attention will once again fall on Tennessee's upperclassman quarterback.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The most famous quarterback on Sunday night is Chuckie Keeton, returning from the knee injury that cost him the back nine in 2013.  Before going down against BYU on October 4 Keeton completed 69.4% of his passes, which would've been good enough for fourth in the nation (behind Teddy Bridgewater, Shane Carden of ECU, and Johnny Manziel working against his own narrative) if he held that percentage.  Those numbers are no fluke:  in 2012 Keeton finished 11th in completion percentage and 19th in yards per attempt.  With elusiveness a big part of his arsenal as well (14 career rushing touchdowns), Keeton is incredibly efficient and makes few mistakes.  He boasts a 56/13 career touchdown/interception ratio, firing two picks in 196 attempts last year.

Standing on the other sideline is Justin Worley.  His return as the starting quarterback was met with acceptance, not excitement.  He has appeared in 17 games over three years, meaning he will be the first Vol quarterback since Erik Ainge to see meaningful action in four different seasons.

The optimists among us, including me, are hopeful senior Justin Worley with more muscle and more command of the offense can help make a tangible difference with more playmakers around him.  After the Nathan Peterman experiment against the Gators last season, we compared Justin Worley to other Tennessee quarterbacks of the last three decades.  He seemed to find his best home in the AJ Suggs, Rick Clausen, Matt Simms department:  can have really good moments with talent around them, but can't be relied on to win it on their strengths alone.  Of course, after we wrote that Worley played the best game of his career in the near-miss against Georgia, then played a classic don't get us beat, make one or two big plays game in the upset of South Carolina.  And then he was lost for the season.

The conversation about Worley's qualifications over Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs was clearly ended by the coaching staff, and hopefully Worley's play doesn't open it again.  The questions now center on how effective he can be against Utah State, and the answers for Sunday night and the rest of the year depend greatly on two things that are to a degree beyond Worley's control:  how much better will the offense be with so many new weapons, and how much worse will the offense be replacing its entire offensive line?

Who Worley Throws To

Last year Justin Worley spread the ball around to 14 different receivers through mid-October (including 10 in the first game alone):

  • Pig Howard 25 receptions
  • Marquez North 22
  • Rajion Neal 16
  • Jason Croom 11
  • Josh Smith 10
  • Brendan Downs 9
  • Eight players with 5 or less
From Austin Peay to Utah State, Tennessee's first string offense will look the same in only three ways:  Justin Worley, Pig Howard, and Marquez North.  Howard and North were obvious weapons last year, but it went downhill very fast from there.  In particular the running backs were often used as safety valves that weren't very safe.  In a problem not exclusive to Worley, Rajion Neal caught 27 passes last year but only gained 108 yards (4.0 per).  Marlin Lane grabbed 9 for only 50 (5.56 per).

This, obviously, isn't how it's supposed to go, and wasn't the way it went for Mike Bajakian's offense at Cincinnati.  Tailbacks for the Bearcats finished 4th, 4th, and 6th in team receptions in Butch Jones' three seasons in Cincy, all averaging between 7-12 yards per catch.  In 2012 it was tight end Travis Kelce who led Cincinnati in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.

So how will these numbers change with the additions of Josh Malone, Von Pearson, Ethan Wolf, and Jalen Hurd?

I don't know how long the 2013 season will be remembered, but what Marquez North did with few other viable options was truly impressive.  If North can be that good when opposing defenses didn't have to worry about much elsewhere, how good might he be if other receivers can help make the defense pay?

An optimistic viewpoint suggests the Vols can spread and stretch the field now with so many quality targets, and hopefully Worley's game management skills can take advantage and evolve into something more.  Utah State is replacing most of its secondary from last season and, as we learned from Cordarrelle Patterson in the Georgia Dome, there are great advantages to having playmakers the other team hasn't seen on film yet.  Perhaps Tennessee's influx of talent at the skill positions will transform Worley and the offense into something more.

How Worley is Protected

Last year, behind a wall of seniors, Justin Worley was sacked just six times in 7.5 games (three against Georgia).  Obviously this makes a huge difference in a quarterback's ability to make good decisions; most of Worley's interceptions did not come as a result of being overly pressured.

The problem here is not just a Vol offensive line so young and thin true freshman Jashon Robertson switched from defensive tackle to offensive guard and won a starting spot in two days.  It's Utah State's defense, 25th in the nation in sacks last year and, as we've mentioned a bunch, fifth in yards per play allowed.  And unlike the secondary, almost everyone returns in the Aggie front seven.

It could be the most important question for Sunday night:  who makes more plays, Tennessee's wide receivers or Utah State's defensive front?

I will also be completely fascinated to see the run/pass ratio for the Vols in this game.  Marlin Lane is Tennessee's most experienced player, but he'll be going behind a brand new line into the teeth of Utah State's defense.  Last year Tennessee ran the ball 57.2% of the time; in the six games Worley started and finished he averaged just 26.3 pass attempts.

In the end, the skill players and the offensive line only give Worley a chance to be better or worse.  Win or lose, will he show us something to inspire confidence going forward, for fans but much more importantly for teammates?  We have seen him give us a chance to win against Georgia and South Carolina.  That's what the Vols need in games like this one, especially in games like this one.  Will we see a better Justin Worley on Sunday night?  And will his new teammates be more blessing or curse in their very first night in Neyland?