Justin Worley was handed Tennessee’s starting quarterback job with the promise he wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder.
The promise was broken. Worley didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. Three second-rate performances sent the junior to the bench against Florida.
But following Nathan Peterman’s dismal day and surgery on a broken hand that will sideline the redshirt freshman for at least four weeks, Worley’s competition-less days are back.
Worley will be handed the reins once more as the Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) host South Alabama (2-1, 1-0 Sun Belt) Saturday at 12:21 p.m. ET.
“I thought (Worley) took some strides Saturday,” Jones said.
True freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson will jostle for the back-up spot. Both were bracketed behind Worley in the newly released depth chart.
Jones listed a hoard of prerequisites for the second-string job.
"I think a confidence level, the ability to manage our offense, that leadership aspect, that command presence, that alpha male. We will try to simulate as many game like conditions as possible but as we all know you can't simulate it until there are people in the stands and it is for real,” Jones said. “The one who makes the least mistakes, the one who doesn't take chances with the football, the one who understands what we are doing, the power of why. Why are we trying to do this.”
Ferguson made the 70-man traveling roster. Dobbs did not. But Jones said that does not indication Ferguson is further along or better than Dobbs.
“It is zero indication of who is ahead of each other,” Jones said. “It just came down to a decision and we made it and we're moving forward."
Jones is looking for the quarterback position to stop making “catastrophic” mistakes that negate turnovers and scoring opportunities.
Worley tossed two interceptions in a 149-yard performance against the Gators. Peterman turned the ball over three times.
“They have to eliminate the catastrophic plays,” Jones said. “The one where he flushed the pocket and he's trying to throw the ball out of bounds and he doesn't do it and they make a play on it and it's an interception. Throw the ball away. Leave no doubt. I said it after the game, sometimes punt's the only play.”
Jones said he could not pinpoint the exact play where Peterman injured his hand. Ju’Wuan James added that the only time Peterman complained about pain followed the interception thrown to Florida defensive lineman Darious Cummings.
Notes & fast stats
Butch Jones said he has not spoken to Arian Foster after the ex-Tennessee tailback admitted to receiving benefits while in college.
There are zero expectations that Curt Maggitt plays this Saturday. When asked about the redshirt possibility, Jones said: "We'll see where we're at in the season. If this season continues to progress, a lot of it will depend on his wishes and his family's wishes as well."
Tennessee ran 57 offensive plays against Florida. Jones said his team’s tempo is “not even close” to where he’d like it to be.
Tennessee ranks third nationally with 12 forced turnovers. Tennessee also is averaging 11.5 points per game off turnovers. It’s the best in the SEC and fifth in the nation.
Saturday’s game marks the first meeting between South Alabama and Tennessee. The Vols are 8-0 all-time against Sun Belt teams.
South Alabama defeated Western Kentucky 31-24 on Sept. 14.
Vereen’s big impression
Corey Vereen made quite the first impression Saturday on very few opportunities.
Fresh off a sprained MCL injury, Tennessee’s freshman defensive lineman played seven snaps against Florida.
The mere mention of his name Monday drew smiles and praise.
“They were a very productive seven snaps, just having him back on the field gave us another edge presence. You could see the difference on the get off,” Jones said. “He impacted the quarterback on a number of plays.”
Defensive line cohort Marlon Walls was equally impressed.
“He is explosive. We kind of questioned how explosive he would be after the knee injury, but he got it back,” Walls said. “It is exciting to see because we could always use another pass rusher. I am looking forward to watching him this week. He has been progressing really well. He got his speed back, and that is something we could use on the defensive line."
While Vereen’s name did not appear on the South Alabama-week depth chart, Jones said he will see more playing time.
“We anticipate, obviously with his health, he'll play more plays this Saturday as he continues to progress,” Jones said.
But the compliments for Vereen extended beyond the football field. Jones said the youngster is a model of hard work.
“Just his whole mindset is what we want here. You know his preparation - the kids laugh - he stretches for an hour a day,” Jones said. “All you have to do is tell him one thing, if I say `hydrate, here is a gallon of water' he'll go drink two gallons of water. He is hungry for greatness.”
Senior leaders were asked to step up Saturday in The Swamp.
Marlon Walls answered the call.
Jones said Walls played the best game of his career against Florida.
“I thought he had one of his best performances. You know Marlon is, again, has been a great leader,” Jones said. “It's important to him and I thought he played his best football at Florida and we're going to need him obviously as we continue to progress here.”
Walls recorded three tackles – one for a loss – forced a fumble and registered a quarterback hurry.
While Walls agrees his performance was the best of his tenure at Tennessee, he isn’t taking any credit.
He was quick to tip his cap to defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
“I think I'm getting better just by listening to what (Stripling) telling me to do,” Walls said. “I fell like I'm starting to progress a little bit just by listening to him.
“…Whenever you get a guy who you can relate to and truly cares and loves you, you do better. You strive to play better. You don’t want to let that guy down. I think that’s something we’ve been missing here for a long time. We go hard for coach (Stripling).”
Walls sees the defensive line improving week after week – as does Jones.
Both thought the pass rush took a major step forward against the Gators. But the improved performance isn’t resulting in wins. It’s frustrating.
Walls is as fired up as ever to take the gridiron against South Alabama.
“We’re a pretty pissed off football team right now. That’s just the truth,” Walls said. “We felt like we let two games slip away. You only get 12 Saturdays to play this game. We’re pretty pissed off, man. We’re fired up.”
Walls reaches out to Williams, Driskel
Marlon Walls spoke on the phone with ex-Tennessee defensive lineman and current Arizona Cardinal Dan Williams on Sunday night.
Williams’ father, Thomas, was killed in a car wreck driving to the Cardinal’s game against New Orleans.
Walls, a Olive Branch, Miss., native, grew up close to the Memphis area and met Williams’ family his freshman year.
Walls said Williams is, “handling it as best as a person can. He’ll get through it, but he’s hurting.”
Walls also reached out to Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel. Walls fell on Driskel’s leg Saturday and ended his season with a broken ankle.
Walls’ message was: “I know what kind of competitor you are. I know you'll compete and come back even better."
Dontavis Sapp, Ju'Wuan James, Marlon Walls