published Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Vols quarterback Tyler Bray continuing to progress

Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley talks to his players in Gainesville, Fla.
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley talks to his players in Gainesville, Fla.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE—The number is nice and low.

It doesn't tell the whole story, either.

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has thrown just two interceptions in 113 passes this season. While the attempts number probably should be higher, the sophomore's decision-making has yet to cause any serious concern.

"I think he's improved tremendously from last year," Volunteers coach Derek Dooley said. "Does that mean he makes every decision correctly? No, he's made some mistakes, as all quarterbacks do and all great quarterbacks have done. As long as he stays on the track he's on, I think over time he'll have a lot more good decisions than bad decisions."

Bray will make the ninth start of his college career today when the Vols host Buffalo at Neyland Stadium, and the 6-foot-6 sophomore has put up plenty of impressive numbers and added some notable records to his name in just a short time. His nine-game streak of two or more touchdown passes surpassed the previous mark held by Peyton Manning.

His completion rate has gone from 56 percent as a freshman to 68 percent in three games this season. After tossing 18 touchdown passes in the last six games of 2010, Bray already has 10 this year (only 11 FBS quarterbacks have more). He leads the Southeastern Conference in total offense, passing yards per game and passing efficiency.

"If the quarterback's on top of the game," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said, "Tyler can throw an accurate football. You don't have to be real open for him. He can stick the ball in there."

But Bray has tried to stick some throws into places he shouldn't at times this year and gotten away with it. He's had three interceptions erased by pass-interference penalties, and Florida dropped five would-be interceptions in the 12th-ranked Gators' 33-23 win two weeks ago.

"I think about 80 percent of the time he is [taking care of the ball], 20 percent he isn't," Chaney said. "Those are those boneheaded plays we're trying to talk about. We'll continue to work on that. Ball security is ultimately the goal of every offense, and he's still making some mistakes in regard to that, so those are the boneheads we're dealing with. We're trying to get rid of those."

Dooley was especially proud of Bray's grit in handling a tough situation in Gainesville, when the Vols lost star wideout Justin Hunter early in the game, fell behind twice and abandoned their ineffective running game.

Even in Hunter's absence, UT will rely on passing to carry the offense, mostly because of Bray's talents. As impressive as he's been since coming in to relieve Matt Simms last October against South Carolina, Bray still is in an early stage of his career, though he's well past that point from a development standpoint.

The balance for Bray always has been minimizing mistakes while maximizing his ability to create explosive plays, and perfecting that balance comes with time.

"I think that's something that he's going to learn through deliberate practice," Dooley said, "which means thousands and thousands of reps and understanding the situation of the game, understanding the defense you're playing, understanding the leverage they're playing, when to take chances and when not to. There's not a page in the manual that you can explain and they get it. It's just something that you learn over time, and he's learning and he's gotten a lot better at that."

In a fashion typical of young quarterbacks, Bray has struggled against the best defenses he's seen. The two interceptions against Florida pushed his career total to 12, and six of his 10 picks last season came against Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Bray will face a gauntlet of good defenses after today's game with the Bulls. Alabama, LSU and Georgia rank in the top 20 nationally in passing efficiency defense. Those three defenses and South Carolina rank in the nation's top 23 in total defense.

The knock on Bray has been that he's done most of his damage against suspect defenses, but the calm Californian doesn't pay much attention to that criticism. The Vols' brutal October stretch, though, will test how far he's truly come in his decision-making.

"You teach him, you train him and he understands the importance of it," Chaney said. "Through reps and in practice, they figure out when they can chance and when they can't. I want him to grow up a lot faster than probably time allows that to happen, but he's doing much better than he did last year, I feel like, and I think he's on a really nice growth pattern right now, playing good football for us.

"But we've got to eliminate those. There always a caveat to every quarterback's play, so we've got to eliminate those mistakes."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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