KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley will get a chance to provide senior leadership to one of the youngest offenses in the Southeastern Conference.
Volunteers coach Butch Jones announced Thursday that Worley would start the Aug. 31 season opener against Utah State. Sophomores Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs continue to compete for the right to serve as Worley's main backup.
"I was hoping that he would lean my way," Worley said. "Now I've just got to take the opportunity and run with it."
Although each of the three quarterbacks started at least one game last season, Worley was the most experienced contender. That experience could prove essential as Tennessee replaces all of last year's starters on the offensive line and relies heavily on newcomers in the backfield and receiving corps.
"Justin's played in big-time games," Jones said. "He understands the environment. He's one of the most experienced returning quarterbacks in the SEC, and we're going to need that with a very, very young football team."
Worley started seven games last season before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right thumb. He completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Dobbs started the final four games after Worley got hurt last year. Peterman started ahead of Worley and struggled in a 31-17 loss to Florida before a broken hand knocked him out for the rest of the season.
Worley believes he's more consistent this year and has a better grasp of the offense. After deferring to Tennessee's senior-laden offensive line last season, Worley says he has worked to become a better leader this year.
"I was a little timid last year, I'll tell you that," said Worley, who has 10 career starts. "I think Coach Jones will tell you that too. I was a little timid, didn't really take things and run with it. But this year, I've done a good job of getting the guys' respect and leading the offense."
Jones challenged his quarterbacks last week by saying the Vols weren't playing "winning football" at that position. Jones has offered more praise for all the quarterbacks lately and said Thursday that Worley "is playing the best football that he's played in a long time."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said all the quarterbacks have improved since Jones' criticism. Bajakian added that Worley's progress and track record made it an "easy and apparent decision" to give him the starting spot.
Bajakian noted that Worley had physically transformed himself over the last year, which has improved his durability. Worley, who is 6-foot-4, says he currently weighs 230 pounds. He was listed as 222 pounds in last year's media guide.
Worley said he feels faster even with the extra weight.
"I think that's helped him athletically," Bajakian said. "He's always had a strong arm, but it's helped him with durability and with endurance. And that can only help you with accuracy."
Worley now must try to beef up a passing attack that struggled to produce big plays a year ago. Tennessee ranked 111th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing efficiency last season.
The Vols believe they have more weapons in their offense this year, thanks in part to the addition of a heralded 32-man recruiting class.
"I've just got to get it into some of these guys' hands," Worley said, "and they can turn a little bubble into a 60-yard touchdown."
NOTES: Defensive end Curt Maggitt, who hasn't practiced since late last week, says he's "all good" and that he'd "definitely" be ready for the season opener. Maggitt wouldn't specify the nature of his injury but said it was "just some minor things." ... Jones said sophomore George Bullock leads the competition to replace the departed Michael Palardy as Tennessee's main kicker, but a final decision hasn't been made. ... Tennessee's Saturday night practice at Neyland Stadium is open to the public. Gates open at 6 p.m. and the practice is scheduled to start at 6:50 p.m.