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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Now that Tennessee has found its quarterback, the Volunteers must figure out how to protect him.
After using three different starting quarterbacks last season, the Vols have gained stability from the improved production and leadership of Justin Worley, who won a three-way competition for the job in training camp. Worley's biggest problem thus far has been finding enough time to throw.
Tennessee (2-1) already has allowed nine sacks through the first three games of the season. Only nine of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have yielded more sacks. One of Tennessee's main objectives during its off week has been to improve its pass protection, particularly after Worley was sacked five times and pressured all night Saturday in a 34-10 loss at No. 4 Oklahoma.
"Justin's a warrior," junior center Mack Crowder said. "That game showed it. He got knocked down a lot and got right back up and just kept a calm head on his shoulders and kept delivering the ball the way he was supposed to. In my opinion, Justin's the best quarterback we could possibly have, and we're going to keep getting better for him up front."
The Vols had given up a combined 23 sacks in 2012 and 2013, the Southeastern Conference's lowest total over that two-year stretch. But it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Tennessee's having trouble keeping Worley upright this season.
Tennessee lost all five of last year's starting linemen, and three of them now are on NFL active rosters with a fourth on injured reserve. Tennessee's offensive line took another hit when starting left tackle Jacob Gilliam tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a season-opening 38-7 victory over Utah State.
The right side of Tennessee's line against Oklahoma featured two freshmen, with Jashon Robertson at guard and Coleman Thomas making his first career start at tackle. Robertson began training camp on defense before moving to offense. Thomas, primarily a center in high school, is still learning the nuances of playing tackle.
The Vols acknowledge their lack of experience but aren't using it as an excuse for their early-season problems as they prepare for their Sept. 27 game at No. 13 Georgia.
"It's not to the standard of what's expected here, regardless of what it is in terms of how may guys are new or the classification and all those things," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "I'll never allow that to be a crutch for them."
A lack of continuity also has been an issue. Tennessee has used a different combination on the line in each of its first three games. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said after the Oklahoma game that he planned to stick with the five who started against the Sooners. That group included junior left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, junior left guard Marcus Jackson, Crowder, Robertson and Thomas.
"We're always going to compete now," Jones said. "If an individual isn't executing and doing their job, it's all about competition. But I think it's important moving forward that they know, 'Hey, here it is, let's build some consistency and let's work to get better.' "
Tennessee remains confident it will get better up front. As tough as Tennessee's schedule gets the rest of the season, the Vols might not face a better front seven than Oklahoma. As much as they struggled that night, Tennessee's linemen showed progress as the Oklahoma game wore on. Their desire to learn and improve has impressed the coaching staff.
"I love their workmanlike attitude and I love their approach," Mahoney said. "We're just going to keep working and keep grinding away. It's got to come sooner (rather) than later. We're going to get there. I know we will because I believe in the guys in the room and I believe in their approach."
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