KNOXVILLE — Justin Worley is returning to the place where it all began.
Tennessee's quarterback was a skinny freshman in 2011 when, less than six minutes into the fourth quarter of the Volunteers' blowout loss at second-ranked Alabama, he was sent into the game just two weeks after he was a redshirting third-stringer behind Tyler Bray and Matt Simms.
Saturday, he'll be the starter leading the Vols into Bryant-Denny Stadium to face the top-ranked Crimson Tide.
"He looked nervous," right tackle Ja'Wuan James recalled Monday. "He was just a freshman kid out there getting thrown in the game and burning his redshirt.
"I know he's a totally different Justin Worley, and I'm looking forward to going and battling with him."
After the last two games, who can blame James and the rest of Tennessee's offense for having confidence in Worley?
Sure, the junior has been neither perfect nor consistent. Worley completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 394 total yards against Georgia and South Carolina. The yards per completion (10.9) and attempt (6.1) aren't flashy.
But Worley led the Vols on go-ahead drives and made some big throws in key situations in the fourth quarters of both those games, and it's helped his confidence.
"I think everything is part of my development," he said. "I've continued to grow all year as well as everybody else on the team -- getting more comfortable with the coaches, really knowing what they're going to call, what they're going to do, what they're expecting in situations. It's all part of the process."
Against the Bulldogs, Worley threw passes of 26 and 28 yards to freshmen Josh Smith and A.J. Branisel to convert a third down and a fourth down as Tennessee drove 80 yards to take a late lead before losing in overtime.
Last week against the Gamecocks, it was a 39-yard completion to freshman Marquez North, who did most of the work on the catch that put the Vols in range to kick the winning field goal.
After throwing a trio of interceptions against South Alabama, Worley has played turnover-free the past two games.
"I see him taking great strides day in and day out," Vols coach Butch Jones said, "from the way his preparation is off the field, in the classroom, the questions he's asking, the confidence, that overall command of the offense, the leadership capabilities, the leadership that we expect from that position.
"Every rep he takes is a teaching moment, so I think he's progressing. He's made some big throws now in some key games in some key situations. Now it's just the overall consistency."
At least in interview settings, Worley displays an unassuming persona, though he carries himself much the way one would expect from a starting quarterback. Jones said Worley's intangibles are continuing to develop, but the coach believes the poise his quarterback has shown late in these close games isn't a surprise.
"It's in him. We see it. It's now getting out of him," Jones said. "It's having confidence in himself and his teammates. And you know, everyone wants to point toward the quarterback position, but I've said it: The quarterback is only one out of 11. There's 10 other individuals on the field, and I think what you're seeing is the players around him are performing better.
"Our wide receivers are making plays. Marquez North goes up and high-points the ball, plays the ball in the air extremely well and makes some great catches. Alton Howard is giving us something we knew was in him. We have some players stepping up on the perimter. We've been able to run the ball effectively and efficiently.
"I think the offense is coming around, and everyone thinks Justin is playing better, and he is, but I think it's a byproduct of everyone around him as well."
Worley echoed his coach's perspective.
"Over the course of the season, I think our experience level and confidence level have grown," he said. "Knowing that these younger guys around me and the veteran offensive line, knowing that we're building chemistry day in and day out, I have faith in them. I'm really happy with how we've come along so far."
A month ago, Worley lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, but he's bounced back and had a hand in putting Tennessee in position to win two big SEC games.
"Confidence is a big thing," James said. "When you believe those guys like Marquez are going to go make a play like that, he'll have confidence throwing it up like that. He believes we'll protect him for long enough for him to let stuff open up.
"I feel like he's got a lot more confidence in him. I never doubted him and his play and his playmaking ability, so I think he's going to go out there and continue to play well.
"He's been very poised -- a lot different than the past years when I've played with him. He's definitely matured and grown, and he just wants to go out there and lead us to victory."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...