Derek Dooley and the Tennessee Volunteers are past the halfway point of their 2011 schedule and without a doubt through the toughest stretch of the season.
After facing the Nos. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation in LSU and Alabama, respectfully, Dooley’s team is definitely feeling the grind of SEC football.
“A lot of bumps and bruises,” Dooley said following Tuesday’s practice. “This is very common during the middle of the year, very common after you have played a couple of teams they way we have played and we have to learn it mentally, learn how to manage it physically and your body will continue to adjust to the amount of stress you put on it.”
One player who hasn’t felt the grind and will be fresh out of the gate Saturday will be new starting quarterback Justin Worley. The freshman was slated as the starter in Tennessee’s Monday morning depth chart following Matt Simms' 8-of-17, 56-yard, one-interception, two-sack performance against Alabama.
“He did good,” Dooley said of Worley’s practice. “He did what he has done the last couple of weeks. He has been a different guy since Tyler (Bray) went down mentally. You can tell he is into it, which is good.
“He is throwing the ball well, managing the plays well, and running the offense. He just has to prepare well this week and go out there and do the best he can.”
This is the second season in a row that Tennessee has thrust a true freshman quarterback into the limelight in the midst of a struggling season — both times in place of Simms. Last year it was Tyler Bray, this year Worley, but Dooley isn’t quite sure what to expect Saturday.
“I don’t know what it is going to look like,” Dooley said. “Could look great, could look average, could look really good at times really bad at times, could look bad.
“I felt like I knew what Tyler was going to look like because we had a lot of practice and game film on the guy. I have no idea what it’s going to look like, but I have confidence in him or I wouldn’t be starting him.”
What Worley does have is high school experience. A former Gatorade National Player of the Year, as a senior the South Carolina native threw for 5,315 yards and a state-record 64 touchdowns, while also rushing for six touchdowns.
“He’s got a lot of good qualities,” Dooley said. “He’s got a tremendous amount of experience in high school, meaning he has thrown a ton of balls and that means something. He’s intelligent, he’s got a good arm, he’s good stature, and so we will see.”
Dooley also announced Monday that Tennessee will do a little experimentation in the secondary where the Vols continue to struggle defending big plays in the passing game.
“I don’t think it’s one thing,” Dooley said of Tennessee’s struggles. “Sometimes it is experience, sometimes it’s physical skills, sometimes it’s a mental breakdown, sometimes it is just an inability to finish, there are a lot of issues and we just have to keep working.”
Fans will likely see more of junior college product Byron Moore, true freshman Justin Coleman and possibly even safety Rod Wilks as Dooley looks for the right personnel to get the job done.
Dooley and the Vols continue preparing for South Carolina with another practice on Wednesday morning at 9.