KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee coaches could sense quarterback Justin Worley’s confidence growing after he completed a 25-yard pass. So on third-and-1 at midfield, they had the freshman launch the ball nearly twice as far to the Volunteers’ top receiver, Da’Rick Rogers.
The pass sailed beautifully for about 40 yards right into the hands of Rogers, who then flat-out dropped it just a few steps in front of the end zone.
“I’ve got to make that play for Worley and Worley’s confidence. That’s why I came to him right after the play, ‘I owe you. I owe you a bunch of stuff,”’ Rogers said Tuesday.
It’s that kind of long-pass potential that prompted coach Derek Dooley to start Worley over senior Matt Simms against South Carolina. The potential didn’t turn into a win thanks to some poor decisions and interceptions by Worley, too many dropped balls by the receivers and other problems on offense, but Dooley is sticking with Worley as the team prepares for Middle Tennessee State this week.
“I’m planning on doing whatever we’ve got to do to win the football game,” Dooley said. “Justin’s going to start, and I hope he plays well, and we expect him to play well. If we’re not getting anything done and the situation dictates we’ve got to make a change, it’s no different than any quarterback. Got to do what we can to win the game. That’s what matters.”
Worley was 10-of-26 passing — 38.5 percent — for 105 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns in the 14-3 loss to the Gamecocks. The would-be touchdown pass to Rogers would have given Tennessee a 3-point lead and undoubtedly the momentum in a game that both teams were struggling to find some offensive rhythm.
Simms’ output wasn’t any better in losses to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama with a 37.8 percent completion rate for 186 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. And though the senior is better than Worley at getting the offense set up for running plays, he doesn’t bring the same kind of deep-ball threat that the younger quarterback does.
The two are trying to tide over the Vols (3-5) until the return of Tyler Bray, who broke his right thumb Oct. 8 against Georgia after throwing 14 touchdowns in five starts. Bray may return in time for Tennessee’s final two games of the regular season but could miss the entire month.
“We feel like in practice that (Worley) has delivered the ball very well, more consistently and more accurately,” Dooley said. “I don’t want to get into comparing the two. Matt does some things better than Justin and really a lot of it is unknown what (Worley) does better. We just made the decision to go with Justin based on how we have performed as a unit when Matt has been in there.”
Worley forced two passes into coverage near the South Carolina end zone which were intercepted — both which came on the heels of turnovers by the Gamecocks. The second interception prompted Dooley to pull Worley in favor of Simms, who drove the Vols to the South Carolina 27 before they turned the ball over on downs on their final drive of the game.
Dooley expects Worley to both play better against the Blue Raiders (2-5) and benefit from improved play by his teammates. In addition to the receivers’ dropped balls, Alex Bullard struggled with calls at center in just his second start at the position after playing offensive guard, and the Vols’ inconsistent running game was good for just 35 yards.
He also knows some of Worley’s mistakes can be chalked up to the nerves of a beginner. Prior to starting against South Carolina, Worley had only played five snaps all season and had trained as the third-string field general.
That inexperience showed up in four badly thrown incomplete passes to open the game and trouble getting play calls from the sideline to the huddle, which forced Dooley to call a few timeouts that he would have preferred saving.
And Dooley admits he might have put a little too much on Worley for his first start.
“We have to do a better job of keeping it simple on him. We might have put too much on him as coaches and that is the first thing we always do is (ask) where did we screw up?” Dooley said. “He handles it in practice, but you forget what is like when you step out there for the first time.”