KNOXVILLE – Whether he wants to admit it or not, Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley’s college career will always be linked with South Carolina.
A resident of the Palmetto State since he was 5 and a record-setting high school quarterback at state power Northwestern High, Tennessee’s starting quarterback wasn’t offered by the Gamecocks out of high school, a recruiting process that he described as not having much contact between either party.
Worley’s first collegiate start also came against South Carolina in 2011, a game the Vols lost 14-3. Now Worley, coming off perhaps the best game of his career, gets a shot to lead UT to its first victory over a ranked team for the first time since the Vols knocked off the Gamecocks in 2009.
“It’d be more beating the No. 9 team in the nation that would be more important,” said Worley, downplaying his connection with the state.
“Granted I did play with some of those guys and against a lot of them from Pop Warner to high school, but I think just getting this win, regardless who it is, it’s what’s important.”
But even though he doesn’t want to play up the storyline, Worley couldn’t deny that there will be a lot of familiar faces on the opposing sideline – some he played with and others he played against while growing up.
South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is one of the faces Worley knows well. He’s from the same hometown, Rock Hill, S.C., as Worley.
“He played running back for his elementary school team and he was an animal back then – taller than all the kids, faster than everybody,” said Worley. “Played against him in middle school, same thing, he played defensive end and running back and ran all over the place. Then I saw him in high school – the rest is history now, he’s a great player.”
Now Clowney will be part of a South Carolina defense that will try to shake Worley’s growing confidence. The junior signal caller completed 17-of-31 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown in UT’s 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia two weeks ago.
Nobody is confusing Worley as an elite SEC quarterback yet. But Tennessee hopes his effort against Georgia will carry over into a productive second half of the season.
“I think our offensive line did a great job of pass protecting and our wide receivers did a great job of getting open, getting some separation from the DBs,” Worley said of his performance against UGA. “We had some huge third-down conversions. If you convert some of those it helps with your overall drive.
“It helps a lot, knowing I put together a performance like that against a quality team.”
• Out: TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, QB Nathan Peterman, WR Josh Smith, OL Jacob Gilliam
• Limited: RB Marlin Lane, TE A.J. Branisel, WR Devrin Young, S Brian Randolph, WR Drae Bowles
• The biggest new injury concern is receiver Josh Smith, who was at practice, but wasn’t participating in drills and spent some time in the injured-players area before eventually going inside the football facility with trainers.
• Devrin Young continues to wear a non-contact jersey and has a slight wrap on his left hand, but he was running routes and catching passes with no visible issues on Wednesday. The best guess is he’ll play a fair number of snaps against South Carolina on Saturday.
• Quarterbacks Justin Worley and Riley Ferguson both threw some nice deep passes in practice. Worley hit Jason Croom in stride for a deep touchdown in one drill, while Ferguson dropped a perfect pass into the outstretched arms of Paul Harris on the next rep.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga