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Throwing the Playbook at Bray

For Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, a second year in Knoxville doesn’t just find the sophomore bigger, up a dozen or so pounds from his freshman playing weight, but also wiser, better versed in the intricacies of a playbook revealed only piecemeal a year ago. According to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, Bray’s knowledge of the U.T. offense is up “about 50 percent” compared to 2010, a sizable increase that has allowed Chaney to nearly install the offense in its entirety. What does this mean for Bray – and Tennessee?

We learned two things about Tennessee’s quarterback situation a year ago. One, the answer at the position isn’t Matt Simms but Bray, with the offense turning a corner late – diminished playbook or otherwise – after Bray took over under center. He stepped into the starting lineup on Nov. 6 and led the Volunteers to a perfect final month, snapping a four-game losing streak and leading U.T. to bowl play with a .500 mark.

There were turnover problems, as you’d expect from a true freshman: two each against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, another three in a bowl loss to North Carolina. There were some struggles with accuracy and the inevitable issues in the pocket; again, as a first-year quarterback, Bray was susceptible to pressure – not that the offensive line did Bray or Simms any favors all year, ranking 116th nationally in sacks allowed.

All in all, however, Bray stood as a far better option for Chaney and Derek Dooley, particularly when it came to his ability to deliver passes in places Simms simply couldn’t: the latter is a solid college quarterback, but his physical gifts pale in comparison to his predecessor’s. Most quarterbacks in the SEC, in fact, would love to have Bray’s physical abilities: Aaron Murray’s a keeper, and a few other programs have young quarterbacks in watch, but Bray’s ceiling is as high as any quarterback in the conference.

Secondly, we discovered that even without a full knowledge of the playbook, Bray can take this offense to another level. Prior to Nov. 6, Tennessee had gained more than 333 yards against only one F.B.S. opponent: South Carolina, a game that saw Bray take over for Simms in the second half. Over its 4-1 stretch to the end the year, U.T. averaged 415.8 yards of offense per game, bottoming out at 339 yards in the loss to the Tar Heels.

That’s the draw, pure and simple: even when playing fast and loose, at times resembling a backyard slinger drawing plays up in the dirt, Bray led U.T. to visibly improved results. Add in a running game that returns one 1,000-yard rusher in Tauren Poole and an intriguing youngster in sophomore Rajion Neal – who has fared well thus far in the spring – and you have the makings of a balanced attack.

The offense line does need to improve. The receiver corps needs to replace its two leading targets from a year ago, though Bray and others have been effusive in their praise for the handful of returning options – led by sophomore Da’Rick Rogers – and the new additions in for spring practice.

So back to the beginning: now that Chaney is confident in Bray’s ability to digest the offense in its entirety, what does that say about the U.T. attack in 2011? It says one thing, at least to me: Tennessee should be more efficient offensively this fall, which should lead to improved results in the win column – not saying 10-2 is in the cards, but U.T. should be better than 6-7.

At the same time, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves. Bray’s still a sophomore, one without anything close to a full season of experience under his belt. The offensive line is still very much a work in progress, especially with projected starter Ja’Wuan James out for the spring with mononucleosis. The receiver position is talented but young, even if the group has the confidence of a batch of all-Americans.

And then there’s the defense, but that’s a topic for another day. For today, looking at the U.T. offense – question marks or no – the Volunteers have enough to carry last fall’s torrid finish into September. And it all begins with Bray.

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  1. UberD says:

    tn is young across the board, playing mostly freshman & sophomores, and thin at several positions, especially at receiver & te. dooley has done well restocking the roster in just his 2nd season though. surprisingly, he has already rebuilt the offensive line, pulling highly rated recruits like james, stone, jackson, posey, richardson & clear. this unit should be much improved from a year ago as the vols now have the size up front to compete with sec defenses. they must run the ball better and take pressure off bray for the young qb to be successful. they can’t try to finish off sec road games with the pass-bray is still too turnover prone. i like poole at hb, but tn really needs to develop some depth this off season or they’re likely in trouble at some point this fall. rajon neal needs to step up in pass protection or incoming freshman marlin lane will be getting his reps. look for former qb matt milton to be in the mix at receiver with hunter and rogers. bray likes to throw deep off play action to hunter. rogers will likely be featured in the return game along with freshman young, thomas & dallas. the freshman arnett could fill a huge hole at wide out if he can quickly absorb the playbook. freshmen clear & b downs will see time immediately at te. dooley and wilcox are starting to get the players they need to fit their system. if the young o-line can mature, bray and the offense could be dynamite.

    Paul: Have to love the confidence. It all comes down to the offensive line, in my mind, so I agree completely. Line provides holes in the running game, takes pressure off Bray, takes pressure off themselves in protection.

  2. M Meyer says:

    So this may be a crazy idea, but it also might be a genius one… The Vols will be hiring a new basketball coach, most likely Shaka Smart. That’ll leave an open position at VCU, who better to lead the Rams than Iowa Offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe. You want a steady transitional coach to carry on the transition.

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