KNOXVILLE — It hasn’t been easy to be a loud, proud member of the University of Tennessee’s Big Orange Nation this autumn.
Between five straight Southeastern Conference football losses before Saturday’s smackdown of Ole Miss and an ongoing NCAA investigation into the men’s basketball program, Volniacs have been as quiet as Nancy Pelosi the past few weeks.
As a media friend has joked on more than one occasion this fall, the Volunteers are about to have the nicest empty facilities in all of college athletics.
At least that seemed the case until true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray and true freshman forward Tobias Harris gravitated to the Smoky Mountains from opposite coasts to save their football and basketball teammates, respectively.
We all know about Bray now. The California Kid has thrown 10 touchdown passes in a shade over nine quarters of play, leading the Vols to two straight victories in the process. To put that into perspective, Peyton Manning threw 11 touchdowns his entire freshman season. Erik Ainge — the former UT quarterback whose long, thin frame most mirrors Bray — threw for 17 scores as a rookie.
Said football coach Derek Dooley of Bray during his Monday news conference: “He has the ability to make plays that change a game. I think it’s instinctive. Some guys have a sixth sense back there. What he does, and this is a gift, he can throw the ball when he’s not perfectly balanced.”
Bray has such a gift in this area that he’s now thrown 81 passes without an interception since one was returned for a touchdown at South Carolina. That accuracy and the Vols’ two straight easy victories earned Bray his second straight SEC freshman of the week honor.
But that ultimately may make him only one-half of the best freshman duo in different sports ever seen at SEC schools. In fact, other than the brief period of time that Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley roamed the same Auburn campus or basketballers Joakim Noah and Al Horford shared Gainesville, Fla., with Tim Tebow, it’s difficult to recall any basketball-football duo with more potential than Bray and Harris.
Or had you already hit the pillow last Friday night when Harris scored seven points in 84 seconds in the first three and a half minutes of the Vols’ 82-62 thumping of UT-Chattanooga on Friday night?
In much the same way Dooley marvels over Bray’s ability to make magic from mayhem, basketball coach Bruce Pearl said of Harris during a news conference that followed Dooley’s: “Tobias makes tough plays look easy.”
It is incredibly easy to over-hype a 6-foot-8 freshman forward who scored 18 points and pulled down five rebounds and committed just one turnover in 26 minutes on his home court against an overmatched mid-major foe.
Tonight’s game against Belmont will be a better test. And quite possibly Missouri State on Wednesday night.
Let Harris duplicate or improve on those numbers enough to move the Vols on to Madison Square Garden next week for the Preseason NIT semifinals and we might truly be looking at the next Bernard King.
In truth, because of his ability to shoot from afar as well as drive and dish, he more closely resembles former Kentucky star Jamal Mashburn, who might arguably be the most polished offensive player 6-8 or better ever to play in the SEC.
Or as Pearl noted after the UTC game, “We probably need to put it in his hands more so we can spread it around.”
Which, of course, is also what Dooley decided during the Vols’ off week before the Alabama game. Watching Bray effortlessly feather completion after completion to every receiver on the team, Dooley decided to pass first, run second, noting that, “When Tyler went in, it made it even more pronounced, because that’s his strength.”
UT’s strength for at least two more football seasons almost certainly figures to be Bray, since he can’t even consider turning pro until the end of his junior season in 2012.
But Harris is bound by no such rules. If he progresses as most top-10 players do in their respective classes, he can join the NBA next year. If he remains healthy, he almost will certainly go pro after his sophomore year.
But between now and then UT fans are in for a twin treat as the rest of the SEC endures double trouble from Bray and Harris.
Or as Pearl noted in recalling his staff meetings while sharpshooter Chris Lofton was a Vol: “We’d plan for this scenario and that scenario, then we’d say, ‘Whatever, whatever. We’ve got No. 5 and you don’t.’”
Now UT has No. 8 in football and No. 12 in basketball and their opponents don’t. May the Big Orange Nation enjoy it while it lasts.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...