South Carolina wasn’t interested in Justin Worley when he was passing for 157 touchdowns at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, S.C., but he’ll have the No. 14 Gamecocks’ undivided attention tonight.
The Tennessee freshman is scheduled to make his first start in a 7:15 p.m. matchup (ESPN2) with the defending SEC East winners.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Worley replaced Matt Simms late in last week’s loss at No. 2 Alabama, but didn’t throw a pass.
Worley passed for six TDs in a victory last year against Rock Hill’s South Pointe, which produced five current Gamecocks, including Stephon Gilmore and talented true freshmen defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. But USC’s coaches evidently weren’t sold.
“We went in another direction at quarterback,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “We went for Tanner McEvoy. That was a decision we made early. …
“I remember asking (defensive coordinator) Ellis (Johnson) how come we didn’t go after this guy. For some reason we didn’t. Probably should have; I don’t know.”
Worley’s insertion into the lineup has coincided with a falling pointspread for the underdog Volunteers (0-4, 3-4). The Gamecocks (4-1, 6-1) opened as a 7-point favorite, but the spread has shrunk to 3 1/2.
That seems odd for a true freshman’s debut against a team with a good pass rush. Clowney has five sacks and four forced fumbles, fellow defensive end Devin Taylor is an All-SEC player and another lineman, Melvin Ingram, has 5.5 sacks.
UT coach Derek Dooley announced Worley as the starter on Monday, apparently not seeing the benefit of trying to conceal the decision from USC’s Johnson.
“I can sit there and try and hide it from you guys and hide it from Ellis,” Dooley said, “but Ellis is going to be licking his chops either way.”
Worley’s work habits picked up after he became the No. 2 quarterback when Tyler Bray injured his thumb Oct. 8 against Georgia.
“We have seen a big difference in him since Tyler got hurt,” Dooley said. “Before Tyler got hurt, we were really pushing him to invest more – pushing him to be more focused week to week.”
Adding to UT’s inexperience, Tennessee freshman left guard Marcus Jackson will be making his first start and sophomore Alex Bullard is set to start his second game at center. Jackson is replacing sophomore James Stone, who struggled in 11 starts at center before moving to left guard last week.
The 6-foot-2, 326-pound Jackson has demonstrated physicality beyond his years while playing in a limited role.
“It’s sad to admit this, but when he got here in February, he benched more than anybody on our whole O-line,” Dooley said. “But that is where we were from a development standpoint. He has the stature, the explosive power and the physical tools.
“What he hasn’t impressed us with is his consistency, but again, we are not getting the performance we need, so we have to make a change. It could go the third series we put James back in.”
While Tennessee has lost Bray and leading receiver Justin Hunter to injuries, South Carolina has battled attrition, too. Quarterback Stephen Garcia was kicked off the team earlier this month after five games, All-SEC running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago and offensive tackle Kyle Nunn was lost for the season after four starts.
South Carolina has other running backs banged up, including Kenny Miles (wrist), and plans to start 6-foot-1, 223-pound freshman Brandon Wilds, who was fifth on the depth chart this past summer.
“We think he’s better prepared to play than Kenny now because of Kenny’s wrist,” Spurrier said, “but … Kenny should get some playing time.”
The 6-foot-1, 204-pound Shaw is more mobile than Garcia. He’s 50-of-78 passing (64 percent) for 495 yards, five TDs and two interceptions, although four of his TDs and 311 yards were tallied against Kentucky. Shaw was intercepted twice and generated 155 yards with 28 pass attempts in South Carolina’s last game, a 14-12 win at Mississippi State two weeks ago.
“This quarterback can bring some more things that they maybe weren’t doing with Garcia running around and some of the zone read stuff,” Dooley said. “I don’t know, I think the jury is out. I know this: They have an open date, so they are going to be putting in a lot of new ball plays, and we are going to have to be able to play defense on principle.”
The Gamecocks’ primary weapon is 6-foot-4, 229-pound junior receiver Alshon Jeffrey (30 catches, 451 yards, five TDs).
“He’s a great player,” Dooley said. “And if you don’t believe it, just go play one-on-one with him and let them throw a jump ball. He’s a different kind of guy because he’s so big.”
The Vols’ only loss to USC in 16 games in Knoxville was during Spurrier’s first season in 2005.
“It’s always exciting for our guys to go up to Rocky Top and play the Tennessee Vols,” Spurrier said. “(They are) a team with tremendous tradition and history of football. It’s back in my home state of east Tennessee. It’s always a thrill to go in that stadium and compete in the game.”
Notes: Spurrier is a Science Hill graduate, as is Tennessee redshirt freshman linebacker Logan Honeycutt, a walk-on, pre-med student. Tennessee High alumnus Brendan Downs, a freshman tight end, has played in all seven games for the Vols. Another freshman from Tennessee High, Mack Crowder, is No. 2 on UT’s depth chart at center. … Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson is tied for the team lead in tackles with Austin Johnson (45). A.J. was the SEC freshman of the week after making 13 tackles against Alabama, the second-most ever by a UT true freshman. … Tennessee sophomore receiver Da’Rick Rogers is second in the SEC in receptions (37) and receiving yards (608).