KNOXVILLE — Tyler Bray wasn’t lighting up the box score.
Da’Rick Rogers wasn’t catching pass after pass.
While Tennessee’s quarterback prefers 400-yard passing days and Rogers wants to score on every play, neither came even close to those wishes Friday during the Volunteers’ first spring scrimmage.
Neither had a bad afternoon at Neyland Stadium, though.
“The maturity level of these guys is so much better,” UT coach Derek Dooley said after the scrimmage. “Tyler’s not in the tank because his stats aren’t great. Da’Rick’s not in the tank because he didn’t catch a ball today. They’re working on their game and improving for the team, and that’s a real sign of maturity.
“Now in the game, it probably won’t be like that, but you’ve got to start in practice.”
During the 2012 season, the Vols will need Bray to be accurate throwing and Rogers to be the difficult matchup he was last season, when he went over the 1,000-yard mark receiving and earned All-SEC honors. But with the other star receiver, Justin Hunter, held out Friday, UT continued to focus on improving its run game.
While both Bray and Rogers are at their best when the ball’s in the air, the rising juniors can help the other aspect of the offense as well.
For Bray, it’s improving on getting the offense into better running plays based on the defense.
“Yeah, I’ve taken a step,” he said Friday. “[Offensive coordinator Jim] Chaney’s still helping out, though, with the looks and stuff. It wasn’t the plays. It was knowing which ones I needed to check out of and leave.”
The 6-foot-6 Californian’s ability to throw the ball down the field has never been an issue, but in the past he’s tried forcing deep throws. His scrimmage stats have hardly resembled how he’s played in games when healthy, and Friday’s 13-of-32 passing performance seemingly continued that trend.
According to the stats provided by UT for the closed scrimmage, though, Bray was effective checking down to running backs and tight ends.
Tight end Mychal Rivera caught four passes for 45 yards with a 5-yard score from Bray. Tailback Devrin Young had a 35-yard catch-and-run and finished with 59 yards on three catches. Backup tight end Cameron Clear caught two balls for 20 yards.
Bray may not have been responsible for all of those throws, but Dooley continues to talk positively about his quarterback’s growth.
“Quarterbacks are getting a lot better at [checking down], and it created some explosive plays,” the coach said. “Those were some of our best pass plays. He’s showing a lot of growth in some areas, but we didn’t have those big, down-the-field plays that we are used to having. A lot of it is our receiving corps isn’t right there yet.
“But he’s managing the offense better than he ever has, he’s hitting the checkdowns better than he ever has and I think he’s learning how to be a complete quarterback. He’s on track.”
The Vols hope Rogers is back on track after an offseason of repeat trips to the doghouse for the former Calhoun (Ga.) High School star. The 6-foot-3, 208-pounder was UT’s best offensive weapon last year. He had six 100-yard receiving games and caught five or more passes in eight of the Vols’ 12 games.
Friday, though, Rogers caught no passes.
“It was all blocking for me,” he said. “That’s just the work and the unselfishness you have to have to have a good run game. We’re really trying to put work into that.”
That hardly seems like it came from a player who missed a practice last week for internal disciplinary reasons among rumors he was looking to transfer. He struggled with controlling his body language at times last year, especially when UT scored just one touchdown in a four-game stretch in October that was frustrating for everyone involved. The key is not letting his play get affected.
Rogers knows as well as anyone what the Vols’ offense is capable of with a healthy Bray and Hunter. That explains the offense’s heavy emphasis on fixing the run game this spring. Perhaps, too, it explains Rogers’ attitude.
“He’s worked his tail off,” Dooley said. “He made some big blocks out there today. Didn’t catch any balls, you know, and obviously that’s not what we want in a game. But that’s good. That’s progress, and he should feel good about that.”
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 ...