By now, you've heard all about how Justin Worley has been named the starting quarterback replacing senior Matt Simms. You probably know that the freshman will be making his first collegiate start against his home state South Carolina Gamecocks. Worley was the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year last season after an outstanding career at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, SC. Worley led his team to a state title and set several state passing records along the way. Everyone is anxious to see just how the high school All-American performs on Saturday. However, another true freshman will be getting his first start this weekend at Neyland Stadium, and his performance could be just as critical to the Vols' chances of upsetting the 14th ranked Gamecocks. After 15 starts through only one and a half seasons, sophomore James Stone has been pulled from the starting lineup for Saturday's game. The Nashville Maplewood product was named to the Sporting News Freshman All-American team after his performance last season. So, after a successful first year, many expected Stone to be an anchor for the talented, albeit very young, offensive line. As Stone prepared to be the starting center heading into his sophomore season, the left-handed lineman was asked to learn to snap the ball with his right hand. Much was made about the amount of time he and quarterback Tyler Bray were dedicating to perfecting the exchange from his weaker hand.
After multiple bad snaps in several key situations this season, Stone was moved to guard before last week's game against Alabama. Fellow Nashville native Alex Bullard, a Brentwood Academy alum, was given the start at center. Bullard was named the team's offensive player of the week for his performance against the Tide, while Stone seemed to struggle with the change including a couple of costly false start penalties.
This week Derek Dooley announced that in addition to the change at quarterback, Marcus Jackson, true freshman from Vero Beach, Florida, will be starting at left guard in place of James Stone. Jackson was an Under Armour All-American and a member of the ESPN150 last season. Surprisingly, he walked onto campus as the strongest offensive lineman on the team. That's pretty telling in terms of the current status of the Vols roster. Coach Dooley said this about Jackson's strength, "He's a bigger, more powerful player. It's kind of sad to admit this, but when he got here in February, he benched more than anybody on our whole O-line. That's where we were from a development standpoint."
Dooley also said this about James Stone, "He didn't train in high school the way some of these guys in different programs trained. That's just a fact. You can see it when he hits guys. He doesn't play to his weight the way he needs to, and he just needs to develop. He's one of those guys that needed a redshirt and sit out, but we just didn't have that luxury. In some ways, I feel bad for him because we threw him out there before he was really ready, and we had no choice." Dooley was quick to defend Stone's effort. He went on to say, "Nobody invests more and works harder than James Stone and has a better attitude. He's just an incredible young man. But it's not personal."
Marcus Jackson and his fellow offensive lineman will play a critical role in protecting the freshman Worley on Saturday. Perhaps even more important than the protection will be what kind of results that O-line can produce in the running game. After rushing for a combined -30 yards in their first two SEC games against Florida and Georgia, the Vols have rushed for a combined 203 yards against LSU and Alabama. That's still not setting the world on fire with the run game, but it is certainly improvement, especially considering the Vols were facing two top 5 defenses.
If Tennessee can find a way to establish a running game against the Gamecocks, who boast the 7th ranked Total Defense in the country, then life will be much easier for Justin Worley.
Justin Worley's performance will undoubtedly be under a microscope this weekend, but his fellow freshman Marcus Jackson could do an awful lot to help him out.