KNOXVILLE — What a difference a week made for Tennessee’s passing game.
And if the Volunteers’ aerial attack can carry that same upward trend of improvement it showed during the second half of spring practice into the summer months, the moments of brilliance and potential the young group showed late last season could outnumber the moments of inexperienced mistakes.
“I feel we’ve grown a lot. From the first scrimmage to the second scrimmage, I even see that we grew,” tight end Mychal Rivera said during the final week of spring practice.
“[Quarterback] Tyler Bray’s starting to trust me and he’s starting to trust the receivers more to where you get to your break and you’re turning and the ball’s already there, which is a great thing with your quarterback. His timing is getting real [good], and the tight ends and the receivers are meshing with the quarterback and everybody real well.”
Much of the success the Vols will have throwing the football this season will depend on the mind and right arm of Bray. His abysmal performance (5-for-30 passing) in UT’s spring game aside, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound sophomore from California made tangible strides during four weeks of spring workouts.
“I thought the last two weeks of spring practice he really performed the way we expected him to perform,” coach Derek Dooley said after spring practice, “from a command standpoint, from an accuracy standpoint, from a judgment and decision-making standpoint.
“So that was encouraging, but certainly Tyler has a lot of work ahead of him. He’s still in the infant stages of quarterbacking. He’s young, he’s in the early stages of his career, and probably ultimately how good he is is just going to be based on how much commitment he has to being good.”
The summer routine for Bray will be simple and similar to a year ago.
“Throw with these wide receivers until his arm falls off,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said, “and lift weights and eat. That’s it.”
Said Bray: “That’s always been the case.”
He also must continue mastering the new chunk of the offense given him this spring, when he strugged at first with more nuances of the offense and reading defenses.
“Generally that’s never fazed him,” Dooley said before spring practice. “Like if he doesn’t understand something, he doesn’t care, he’s just going to do something else. A lot of guys get really frustrated because they want to master what we know, and Tyler, if he doesn’t get it, he doesn’t care, like, ‘Maybe I’ll get that tomorrow, but today I’m just going to throw it to that guy and it’s going to be a touchdown.’”
Given Bray’s performance in the second spring scrimmage (17-for-30 for 258 yards, four touchdowns and an interception) — more of a gamelike situation than the spring game — he handled the increased mental responsibility well.
“There’s always going to be more you can put on,” he said. “You’re never going to just fill in the offense in those 14 or 15 practices, so we’ll just come back and grind and move on.”
His receivers have to continue improving with him. Bray has admitted he relied heavily on departed targets Denarius Moore, Gerald Jones and Luke Stocker to make plays for him.
That task now falls primarily on Rivera and sophomore receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, as the third and fourth wideout spots will be filled through competition during summer workouts and preseason camp. As freshmen, Hunter and Rogers showed they possess the physicals tools and talents to be outstanding playmakers in specialized situations, but the requirement now is to become complete receivers.
“I think people have expected a lot from them,” receivers coach Charlie Baggett said, “because they did so well as freshmen last year. But any time you’re not a full-time starter and you don’t have the experience those seniors had a year ago, it takes time to develop it. Justin and Da’Rick have found that out, and I think they’re working hard to get better, but they do have a ways to go.”
For the 6-4, 191-pound Hunter, a long-armed excellent leaper built to catch jump balls, it’s about bulking up to handle physical defenders. Rogers has the size (6-3, 215), strength and speed to be an all-around receiver, though he’ll need to develop consistency. Both also must improve in mastering multiple routes and reading defenses.
“They’ve gotten smart with that,” Bray said. “Before, they would just run the routes that were drawn up on the sheet of paper we get, and now they’re actually doing a little extra stuff — maybe cutting the route shorter, going a little longer, just finding out where the defense is at. This is going to be my second year throwing to them.”
Hunter, Rogers and Rivera combined for 15 catches, 241 yards and four scores in the spring’s second scrimmage, a nice performance with which to head into summer.
“It gives you a lot of confidence,” Rivera said. “Sky’s the limit from here. Hard work will just get us better.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...