Put yourself in Justin Worley’s cleats on Saturday night against Oklahoma. You get pounded for seven sacks (two got negated by penalties), you’re hit 20+ times and often barely have time to make reads or get rid of the ball.
It would be easy to point a finger at the offensive line or the coaches for failing to set up protecting for him. Worley didn’t take that public stance, however. In fact, he went just the opposite direction.
“I got hit a lot,” the senior quarterback said after that game. “I was able to get back up though and keep fighting. The offensive line did a good job. They knew they had a tough test ahead of them with the size of those guys and the scheme they put together but I’m proud of them – they did a good job.”
That’s sticking up for your guys. That’s leadership and a team-oriented attitude. And that’s exactly what the coaching staff is looking for from Worley and this entire team as it works to rebound from its first loss of the season.
“We stress that we’re going to play for one another and we’re going to play with great effort,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. “We understand that when we have success, it’s because all 11 hats are on the same page and if we don’t have success, it’s because all 11 aren’t on the same page. There were a couple hits that were [Worley’s] own fault and that’s just part of the game and you understand that as a quarterback and you continue to just drive on and look at the next play.”
“We’re a team and this is something where we recognize there’s no finger pointing at all,” added offensive line coach Don Mahoney. “We know it starts with us and Justin’s just a tremendous, tremendous leader and he’s grown up so much from last year to this year.”
But that doesn’t mean the offensive line is pleased with what happened in Norman on Saturday. Quite the opposite. Tennessee simply won’t be able to compete with many of its upcoming SEC opponents with a porous offensive line that keeps Worley under duress with regularity.
Mahoney made sure that Worley knows that he appreciates him having his unit’s back and made a pledge to him to make sure that there’s no repeat of that going forward.
“After the game I went up and gave him a hug and told him how proud of him that I was that he fought and hung in there,” Mahoney said. “And I said ‘we’ll get this thing right – I promise you,’ and he knows and says ‘I know you will.’ I can’t say enough about Justin and can’t allow that to happen.”
So what does that look like? Tennessee isn’t getting any reinforcements on the offensive line at any point this season and nothing can change that the Vols will have one of the most inexperienced O-lines in the country this season. At times the Vols had two true freshmen – Jashon Robertson and Coleman Thomas – on the right side being helped by even more true freshmen such as tight end Daniel Helm and/or running back Jalen Hurd in pass protection. That all won’t come together overnight. A lot must happen for the Vols to tighten up that area.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Mahoney said. “It’s one thing if you’re new to playing the position or for the first time and then it’s experience as it goes in which you start to know the tricks of the trade so to speak where you start to know the alignments of potential blitzers.
“There were times [Saturday] when there were sets when they panicked a little bit just because of what the defender did as opposed to just breaking it down to the actual rush of the defender – the actual landmark – the footwork, the hands, all those things. It’s just a matter of growing up a lot faster and mastering our fundamentals and techniques.”