published Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Wiedmer: Bray not totally ready yet

KNOXVILLE — Thirty attempts. Five completions. One touchdown. Those were Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray’s passing statistics for Saturday’s Orange and White game, which Bray’s favored Orange team lost 24-7.

Guess you can’t feast on the likes of Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky every game.

When last we spied Bray performing for paying customers inside Neyland Stadium, he was putting the finishing touches on the Volunteers’ 24-14 regular-season-finale victory over Kentucky last November.

That win marked the true freshman’s fourth victory in four career starts. It also capped a stunning November to remember in which he passed for 12 touchdowns, 1,254 yards and just four interceptions against the aforementioned forlorn four of Memphis, Ole Miss, Vandy and UK.

Throw in a four-touchdown, 312-yard, three-interception performance in the Vols’ controversial Music City Bowl overtime loss to North Carolina and Bray was drawing comparisons to, gasp, Peyton Manning at the same stage of their UT careers.

But then came Saturday’s chilly, windy April afternoon, the Whites determined to make Bray’s Orange guys pay for what they perceived to be an overconfident attitude during the week.

“The White team got tired of hearing they were the underdogs,” said second-year UT coach Derek Dooley. “The Orange came out talking smack. The Whites took the blue-collar approach. They punched [the Orange] right in the mouth. It was fun to watch.”

As an exercise in substance over style, it certainly was. In fact, Dooley even chuckled about White coach Jim Chaney only running it “in one direction. That’s what I noticed.

“He would’ve run the Power 62 times. I got mad at him in the first quarter. He ran his fifth Power in a row and I just said, ‘Can we throw it a little bit?’ So the only reason they were throwing it was because I made them.”

But the White also was running it and snuffing the Orange run because team captain Malik Jackson proved he was smart enough not only to leave Southern Cal once Lane Kiffin took over but also to draft a spring game roster heavier on toughness than talent.

“My goal in the draft was to choose a good offensive and defensive line,” Jackson said afterward. “I know the game is won in the trenches, and that’s where I focused my attention.”

And to that end, the Whites dominated, especially Jackson — who had two tackles for losses and two pass deflections.

“Our defensive line has improved so much,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to fall practice.”

There is much wisdom in that and much reason for the Big Orange Nation to hope for a better autumn than last season, when the D-line was often pushed around against the SEC’s best.

But there could also be at least a little reason to worry about Bray, who needs to work to overcome a tendency to focus too much on fellow rising sophomore Justin Hunter, who caught just one pass for 16 yards. The worst of Bray’s telegraphed attempts to Hunter occurred when he threw into quadruple coverage at one point.

“There were a lot of reasons he wasn’t on,” Dooley said of Bray. “It starts with him. I think he went in there a little bit confident about the matchups, and when you’re not on edge you’re not going to perform.”

To his credit, when asked to grade his spring, Bray gave himself high marks overall but said of his spring game, “I might have to take that course again.”

And just to make all this a little more interesting, backup quarterback Matt Simms threw out this zinger when discussing his six completions in 13 attempts for one touchdown: “I played against some pretty good teams in this conference.”

And Bray picked up four wins in four starts against the Forlorn Four, against whom UT stands 72-3 over the past 25 seasons.

None of this necessarily spells quarterback controversy, especially given the Vols’ 0-5 SEC record last season with Simms under center, regardless of the competition.

But if nothing else, this Orange and White game did more than deliver steak dinners to the White squad and hot dogs to the Orange.

It at least hinted that there might still be a few growing pains ahead for Bray. Especially with half of the Forlorn Four off the schedule for 2011.

about Mark Wiedmer...

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 ...

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