Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley is interviewed during a preseason luncheon on July 31 in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley wasn't particularly surprised to learn he would start Saturday's season opener against Austin Peay.
But he did acknowledge feeling relieved.
Worley, the only quarterback on Tennessee's roster with any college playing experience, learned he had won the starting job Sunday night when coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian met individually with each of the four contenders. Jones formally announced Worley as the starter at his Monday afternoon news conference.
"Just knowing officially that I'm the starter, there is a sense of relief," Worley said. "It's an honor and privilege to play quarterback here."
Worley, a junior from Rock Hill, S.C., was competing with redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs. Peterman is listed as the second-team quarterback on the depth chart. Jones said he ideally would like to redshirt one of the two freshmen, but he didn't say whether one was ahead of the other at this point.
Jones said Worley's experience and ability to take care of the football gave him a slight edge. Worley started three games in place of an injured Tyler Bray in 2011. Worley now must try to replace Bray, who threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns last season.
"It was a very, very tight race," Jones said. "I thought all four individuals did a great job. I think they all really advanced their growth and development throughout the course of training camp, but we just thought Justin was just a little bit ahead of the other three individuals."
Worley is 63-of-110 for 738 yards with five interceptions and one touchdown pass in nine career games. His experience could prove beneficial as he tries throwing to inexperienced receivers who must replace first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round selection Justin Hunter.
How long Worley hangs on to the job remains uncertain.
Jones said he would continue to evaluate the quarterback spot as well as every other position on the team. He noted that Peterman was the first person in Monday to watch film at 7 a.m. Jones didn't indicate whether he planned to use multiple quarterbacks against Austin Peay.
"I don't want our quarterbacks, if they make a mistake, they're looking over and wondering whether they're going to get the hook," Jones said. "That's not how I believe in developing quarterbacks. They do have to produce, but we have to be patient as well."
Worley was confident about his chances of winning the job. Although Jones said throughout training camp that no quarterback had separated himself from the others, Worley took the vast majority of first-team snaps during portions of practice that were open to the media.
"I felt like I'd done enough to win the spot," Worley said.
Now he has to do enough to keep it.
NOTES: Jones declared defensive ends Corey Vereen (knee) and Jacques Smith (fractured thumb) and cornerback Riyahd Jones (leg) out for Saturday's game. Jones said he expects to have Smith ready for the Sept. 7 game with Western Kentucky. ... Jones said he'd probably decide Friday whether linebacker Curt Maggitt would play this week. Maggitt tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last November. ... After moving from wide receiver to cornerback during training camp, Vincent Dallas is back at receiver. ... Tennessee could have three freshmen starting Saturday. Wide receiver Marquez North and cornerback Cameron Sutton are atop the depth chart. Josh Smith is listed as a co-starter at receiver with redshirt freshman Jason Croom. ... Three walk-ons are listed as second-team defensive backs: Reggie Juin at cornerback, Max Arnold at strong safety and Devaun Swafford at nickel back.