NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Not sure if it resonated in Perth, Australia, or Jakarta, Indonesia, but Tennessee coach Butch Jones put his starting quarterback conversation to rest Thursday by naming senior Justin Worley the opening-game starter for the second-straight year, proclaiming the position to carry international significance in an apparent recruiting posture for future prospects.
"He has earned the right to be the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee," Jones said of Worley, who will start the opener against visiting Utah State on Aug. 31. "Being the quarterback at Tennessee is a global position. It’s worldwide. And it comes with a lot of standards and expectations behind who your quarterback is. And Justin has earned the right."
Last season, Worley played in eight games and started seven before a season-ending thumb injury. He completed 109 of 196 passes (55.6 percent) for 1,239 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
In Jones’ first season at the helm, the Volunteers went 5-7 for a fourth-straight losing season, but were 4-3 in games that Worley started and 4-2 in games he started and completed. The biggest win came over then-No. 11 South Carolina with Worley under center.
"It started in spring football and continued through training camp," Jones said of Worley winning the job. "This hasn’t been putting together one or two practices, it’s been an accumulation of reps since the spring. Justin is playing the best football he’s played in a long time."
The two other starting quarterback candidates — sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman — started four games and one game last year, respectively. Once considered a strong challenger, redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson transferred in May to Charlotte.
"All three of us started off shy early on," Worley said of the competition, "but we’ve really picked it up, and I think I’ve really picked it up and stepped up my game. I think the guys look to me as a senior quarterback and the leader of the team."
Worley takes over an offense that returns zero starters on the offensive line, but does boast a variety of skill-position weapons. Senior running back Marlin Lane has 1,472 rushing yards in three seasons, including 534 in 2013. He will be joined in the backfield by true freshman Jalen Hurd, a cornerstone of the highly rated incoming recruiting class.
The Volunteers feature quality depth at receiver, led by sophomore Marquez North, who topped the team with 496 receiving yards. Talented junior Pig Howard is also back after leading the team with 44 catches and three touchdowns, while another highly touted true freshman, Josh Malone, carries huge expectations.
"Justin Worley-like fashion," Jones said of Worley’s reaction to Jones telling him he had won the job. "Not much of a smile, just, ‘All right coach, let’s go. We’ve got work to do.’ He was very business-like. Justin expected to be the starter and worked exceptionally hard, and that’s what I would expect from him."
There is a comfort level with both backups considering each saw significant action last season.
In becoming just the eighth true freshman to start a game at Tennessee, Dobbs (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) completed 72 of 121 passes (59.5 percent) for 695 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 189 yards, including a 40-yard scoring run against Kentucky, the longest by a Volunteers quarterback since Alan Cockrell in 1983. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Peterman (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) played in four games and made his starting debut against Florida in the fourth game of the season. But he broke his hand against the Gators and missed five weeks. He only threw six passes on the year, completing four.
"It’s the theme in football, you’re always one snap away," Jones said. "It’s a challenge when you’re the No. 2 or No. 3, because you have to prepare as if you’re the starter, but your reps are cut. They’re very prideful individuals. They’re competitors, and they understand."
Earlier on Friday, during a team practice, Worley took his first snaps as the announced starting quarterback.
"I thought Justin came out and had a good day at practice," Jones said after Friday’s practice. " … "I’ll continue to say it in terms of a starting quarterback, it is a lot like a starting pitcher in baseball. It’s your win-loss record. That’s the most important thing with a quarterback, is leading your team to victory and doing whatever it takes to get the victory."