KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Perhaps no quarterback understands the challenge of facing South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney better than Tennessee's Justin Worley.
Worley and Clowney both grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., though they went to different high schools. That allowed Worley to watch Clowney mature into one of the nation's most feared pass rushers. Worley remembers Clowney as an elementary school running back who was taller and faster than all his peers.
"I played against him in middle school, and it was the same thing," Worley said. "He played defensive end and running back and ran all over the place. ... The rest is history now. He's a great, great, great player."
Worley will spend Saturday afternoon trying to make sure he doesn't get a face-to-face reunion with Clowney in Tennessee's backfield.
Clowney clinched South Carolina's 38-35 victory over Tennessee last year by sacking Tyler Bray and forcing a fumble with the Vols driving in the final minute. Tennessee's chances of gaining revenge Saturday against the 11th-ranked Gamecocks depend in part on whether Worley can maintain the momentum he established in his last game, a 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia.
"He's gained a lot of confidence, but you're only as good as your last game," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We're going to need a lot from him Saturday. He's going to be challenged with his pocket presence and just overall management and leadership of the offense."
While South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw has been a model of consistency this season, Worley has gone through plenty of ups and downs in his first year as a starter.
Worley lost his starting job earlier this year. He threw a combined five interceptions in back-to-back games against Florida and South Alabama. But he bounced back against Georgia, avoiding turnovers and rallying Tennessee from a 14-point halftime deficit.
"It helps a lot, knowing I can put together a performance like that against a quality team," Worley said.
Worley needs a strong outing to match what South Carolina likely will receive from Shaw, who is playing the best football of his career.
Shaw ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown 124 passes without being intercepted this season. Shaw also has rushed for 319 yards and two touchdowns, and Tennessee's defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season.
"He runs," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "He throws. He makes first downs for us with his legs at times. He doesn't do those stupid things a lot of quarterbacks do. He takes care of the ball very well."
Shaw's big year hasn't surprised Worley.
Worley met Shaw this summer while working as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy. They've kept in touch periodically ever since.
"He's having a great season," Worley said. "I would have expected nothing less. He's a great quarterback."
Worley knows plenty of players on South Carolina's roster because of his Rock Hill background, though the Gamecocks didn't actively recruit him. But he downplayed the idea that beating South Carolina would be particularly special because it's his home-state school.
He was born in North Carolina, and his parents attended North Carolina. So he grew up a North Carolina fan, even though he moved to South Carolina at the age of 5.
"It would mean more beating the (No. 11) team in the nation, I don't think it matters who it is," Worley said. "Granted, I've been playing with some of those guys and against a lot of them from Pop Warner to high school, but I think just getting this win, regardless of who it is, (would be) huge for us."