StaffFile Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press UT quarterback Tyler Bray warms up before the game against UT-Martin at Neyland Stadium.
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley said moments after the Volunteers’ blowout loss at Georgia that true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray had “earned the chance” to get more meaningful snaps in a game.
Apparently, he wasn’t kidding.
Dooley said Monday afternoon that he hoped to see Bray relieve junior starter Matt Simms at some point in the first half of Saturday’s 7 p.m. game against seventh-ranked Alabama.
“Let’s watch this week of practice and see where we go, but we’re going to play him,” Dooley said. “We’ll play him early, try to play him early. I don’t want to get to halftime and we haven’t. But sometimes you never know how the game goes.”
Those comments sat surprisingly well with Simms after Monday’s practice — at least publicly. Bray isn’t one of the UT true freshmen who has been made available to the media yet, but Simms stood confidently in front of dozens of reporters and claimed he wasn’t fazed.
“No, not at all,” Simms said. “In fact, it’s kind of pushing me to practice harder and prepare, just for that little added competition going on. I love competition, and I’m going to battle with whoever’s trying to take my job.”
Simms, who has seemingly played pretty well — especially considering UT’s young, makeshift offensive line — said he didn’t feel any added pressure.
“You’re the quarterback of the University of Tennessee. There’s already a lot of pressure on you,” he said. “I try not to worry about it. I just try to stay focused on what I need to do during the game plan, and just making sure that I’m making the right decisions and completing the football and getting it in play for the athletes.
“Hey, he’s going to play a little bit, but he hasn’t taken my job. And I’m going to look forward to that competition.”
Several other players were much more apprehensive. Few things tend to affect a locker room as much as a quarterback controversy, and several veteran Vols know that all too well.
“There’s no doubt that there’s locker-room talk, with guys saying, ‘Well, this guy should be playing,’ or ‘This guy should just be doing that,’” senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz said. “But, man, that rips teams right from the inside. It splits up the team, and that’s kind of the worst thing you can have, if you’re not buying into what the coaches are saying and believing that they’re playing the best guys. Some guys quit when that happens — you know, like ‘I’m getting screwed.’ You can’t do that.
“You’ve just got to control what you can control and trust that the coaches are doing the best things for the team.”
But it doesn’t always work like that.
UT enjoyed success rotating true freshman Erik Ainge and true freshman dual-threat dynamo Brent Schaeffer in 2004, but Ainge rotated with fellow pocket passer Rick Clausen during the seasonlong debacle in 2005, when preseason national-title predictions eroded into a losing record.
The 2008 season also featured a rotating door of pocket passers, with Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens and current UT-Chattanooga starter B.J. Coleman taking turns. Coleman transferred after that season and Crompton took the full-time spot when Lane Kiffin replaced Phillip Fulmer as head coach.
Quarterback controversy seemed very possible this spring, when Bray and Simms stepped on campus to battle Stephens for the starting spot. But Stephens transferred shortly after watching Simms take a bulk of the No. 1 reps, and Dooley seemed content with Simms atop the depth chart.
That’s not the case anymore.
After the Vols lost two of their first six games, and Bray looked cool, calm and accurate in the fourth quarter against Georgia — albeit against a base defense that wasn’t attacking him all that much — the door has slightly reopened.
Senior wide receiver Gerald Jones threw both arms in the air when asked how the team could avoid having another quarterback controversy split the locker room.
“I’m not the coach. I don’t know,” Jones said. “All my life, I’ve heard commentators on TV say they’ve never seen it happen. When it happens, they’ve never seen it work. That’s all I’ve got. I don’t know.
“But I mean ... shoot, we’re going to have to do something. It’s worth a try. I mean, shoot, we’re 2-4. Why not look at somebody else?”
Jarrod Shaw, a senior who can play guard, tackle and center, said he hoped his younger line mates would follow his example and worry about who lined up in front of them — not behind them.
“I think the biggest thing is just, you know, focus on whoever is in the game at that time,” Shaw said. “It really doesn’t matter to us guys up front. It really doesn’t. We have our own responsibilities, and we’ve got to worry about our whole deal in protecting whoever’s back there. That’s the biggest challenge we’ve had the past few games.
“We can’t focus on who’s back there. We have to just have that pride and that cohesiveness to just protect whoever’s back there.”
Reveiz said there is “never a guarantee” that a team won’t handle it well.
“I’ve seen it happen here,” Reveiz added. “You just have to trust the coaches and control what you can control — which is how you do your job. As a defensive player, I don’t know what’s going on over there. I go against them in practice, obviously, but I’m just tuned into what we’re doing. I just have faith in the coaches — Coach Dooley, Coach Chaney, all those guys — and what they’re doing. I have faith that they’ll put us in the best position to win. I support both quarterbacks, and obviously I just hope the competition makes both of them better.
“I trust the coaches and control what I can control, and I hope everyone else does the same thing.”