Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley's teammates can sense a difference in him this year.
Now that he's entrenched as Tennessee's starter at least for the time being, Worley is playing more confidently. That was apparent Saturday as Worley threw more touchdown passes (three) than incompletions (two) in a 45-0 blowout of Austin Peay.
"You could tell as the game went on he got a little 'swag' in him," Tennessee offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "He started playing. I liked the way he played, and I like his leadership."
The next step is maintaining that confidence when he's playing an opponent that isn't overmatched.
Worley won Tennessee's four-way quarterback competition in part because he was the only candidate with any college playing experience, but his career statistics up to that point didn't exactly jump off the page. Worley was 63 of 110 for 738 yards with five interceptions and one touchdown pass. All three of his previous starts had come as a freshman when he stepped in for an injured Tyler Bray.
Worley, a junior from Rock Hill, S.C., says he's a different quarterback now. His performance against Austin Peay backed that up.
He went 11 of 13 for 104 yards and led Tennessee to touchdowns on each of its six first-half possessions before sitting out the entire second half. Tennessee raced to a 42-0 lead with Worley in the game and scored only three second-half points while backup Nathan Peterman ran the second-team offense.
"I felt comfortable out there," Worley said. "Each series, I gained a little bit more confidence. After getting in the flow of the game for a little while, you start getting a little rhythm."
Worley didn't get much resistance from an Austin Peay defense that allowed 39.5 points per game last season, but he did show an ability to deliver under pressure by throwing a 9-yard touchdown pass to Devrin Young while getting hit. Worley should face much more of a challenge Saturday against Western Kentucky.
"I thought he played winning football for us," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I thought he was in command of the offense."
Worley still has plenty of room for improvement. Watching film, he noticed a couple of technical things that needed correcting. Jones also has said he wants his offense to produce more "big splash" plays. Worley's longest completion Saturday was only 23 yards.
"You look at successful offenses, they have the ability to score on any area of the field," Jones said. "That is where we need to grow and continue to get better."
This offense may struggle to produce as many big plays as it did last season. Worley doesn't have the arm strength of Bray, who threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. Tennessee's receiving corps no longer has first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round selection Justin Hunter.
But the Volunteers believe they can win with Worley, even as the schedule gets tougher. Worley gets another chance Saturday to prove how far he's come.
The last time Worley faced a team coached by Western Kentucky's Bobby Petrino, he went 15 of 29 for 208 yards with one interception and no touchdown passes in a 49-7 loss to Arkansas. Worley says he's made "big strides" in the two years since that game.
"I was a true freshman at the time," Worley said. "That's definitely in the past now. Just being able to take a leadership role, being able to command these guys and have them respond to me and my playing style has been a major thing for me."
James, Worley video interview per UT