KNOXVILLE — Justin Worley will never know what might have been.
He's earned a second opportunity to change the outcome.
The Tennessee quarterback was just finding his groove in the middle of last season, his first as a full-time starter, after playing well enough to lead the Volunteers to an upset of South Carolina and into position to do the same to Georgia when an injury ended his season.
Tennessee would go on to miss out on a bowl game for a third straight season, something Worley believes wouldn't have happened had he not gotten hurt.
"I would like to say yes," he told the Times Free Press at Tennessee's media day Thursday, "but there's so many variables in college football. You can't dwell on the past too long. It's just unfortunate what happened.
"We're a better team now than we were last year -- I firmly believe that -- and I think we've got to look forward."
The Vols will do so with the steady senior at the helm of a promising young offense.
Second-year coach Butch Jones provided an expected answer to one of Tennessee's primary preseason questions at his news conference Thursday afternoon by naming Worley his starter.
"It felt good to hear it again, to know that I could bounce back from my injury and go out there and continue to lead the offense and earn the coaches' faith again," said the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder from South Carolina.
The battle for the No. 2 spot between Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs is "ongoing," Jones said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian met with all three of the quarterbacks individually in his office Thursday morning to relay the decision, one Bajakian said was "easy and apparent" given how Worley performed in games last season and bounced back from his injury.
"We challenged them about a week and a half ago across the board to play with more consistency, and since then they've all stepped up their level of play," Bajakian said. "At this point, Justin is playing the best football he's played since we've been here. He's earned the job, and obviously they compete on a daily basis and will continue to do so."
Bajakian said Worley is "hitting on all cylinders right now," and QB1 said he goes into this season feeling "completely different" than he did this time a year ago.
"His timing and rhythm's outstanding right now," Bajakian said. "His anticipation, he's throwing guys open. His ball location and accuracy is on point. The combination of all that is important in this offense.
"On top of that, and this is something that he's really challenged himself with, he has stepped up as a leader since the end of last season. He's made his presence felt, and I think his teammates look at him as a leader."
Worley will need to be better than he was in 2013. He lost his job after a poor game at Oregon and, after regaining it, threw three interceptions against South Alabama. For his Vols career, he's thrown 11 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions
"I was a little timid last year," he said. "I'll tell you that, and I think Coach Jones will tell you that. I was a little timid, didn't really take things and run with it. This year I've done a good job of gaining the guys' respect and leading the offense.
"Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs are playing lights out as well, and they've really pushed me to be a better quarterback," he added. "They've made the decision hard on the coaches."
And after injuries forced Tennessee to use three different starting quarterbacks last season, both sophomores know they'll need to stay ready.
Peterman, who's performed well this preseason, is eager to show he's better than he showed at Florida last September, when he completed 4 of 11 passes for 5 yards with three turnovers, didn't last a half and hurt his thumb.
He insists he's over that disaster.
"It wasn't easy," Peterman said. "I wish it could have been that next day or the next week, but being hurt for six weeks after that and getting a lot of time to yourself to think, it was tough. I had a lot of good prayer and support from my family and close friends and even the teammates. The guys were there to encourage me.
"I don't think it was easy, but I feel very fortified by that adversity that came and definitely strengthened from it."
At one point, Peterman was fourth in the pecking order behind Worley, Riley Ferguson and Dobbs, but he never thought about transferring from Tennessee.
"I truly believe that this did happen for a reason, that God does have a plan for my life," he told the Times Free Press. "Quitting's not part of my DNA. As Coach likes to say, your resume is on film, so that's definitely not something I wanted to do. I'm a fighter and I wanted to fight back from that."
Dobbs didn't even make the 70-man travel roster for that game in Gainesville, but he wound up finishing the season as the starter.
After performing well in Tennessee's 2014 spring game, he struggled to start training camp.
"My goal is to keep taking strides forward in practice, stay in the film room, continue to compete and continue to grow as a quarterback, so when my number's called I'm ready to go," Dobbs said.
"There definitely have been areas I feel like I can improve. The one thing I wanted to improve, in talking with the coaches, I just need to make sure I'm being more consistent. Every day I need to have a good day."
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 ...