KNOXVILLE — Though he's bulked up to 217 pounds, Tyler Bray still looks like the skinny Tennessee quarterback.
The rising junior still throws the football with the zip he showed at times his sophomore and freshman years. He's still got the deep, relaxed California voice, too.
But some of Bray's Volunteer teammates have noticed a different quarterback. Bray did some different things off the field during the offseason. In seemingly direct contrast to his perceived brash yet cavalier attitude, Bray spent time this offseason in the community.
"That was totally him," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "I think it's part of his growth and maturity as a quarterback. One thing that we emphasize as part of our [Vol for Life] program is learning how to give back to others who aren't as fortunate as us.
"I was proud to see Tyler do those things. I hope he continues it, and I hope he got a little personal joy out of it."
Bray wasn't the only UT player to carry out a part of Dooley's character-building program, though given the high-profile nature of his position, his actions stand out. He surprised the victim of a vicious dog attack by visiting one local elementary school, and read to a class of students at another. He joined a few of his teammates in lending a hand at the annual Punt, Pass and Kick event hosted by the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley at UT's indoor practice facility.
"It's fun," Bray said. "At the end of the day, I can have fun with it. The kids can have fun with it. I just try to put a smile on their face."
Dooley, the Vols' third-year coach, said he wasn't surprised by his quarterback taking the initiative. There is a caveat, however.
"It's not something we don't talk about about, giving back," he said. "We have a lot of players who have done a lot of [community] service. He got a big story probably because he's the quarterback.
"You've got to do it consistently over time. You can't show up at one event and say, 'I'm this.' You prove who you are as a man and you prove who you are as a quarterback by doing it every day over time, and that's going to be key for Tyler."
There's no shortage of steps the Vols hope Bray take on the field during spring practice. After taking Wednesday off, the Vols put on shoulder pads this morning and full pads on Saturday. There likely will be two major scrimmages before the Orange and White game on April 21.
By then, Dooley hopes Bray returns to where he was before he broke his right thumb last October against Georgia. More importantly, though, Bray must gain a better grasp on UT's running game and develop into a leader of an offense that's expecting big things next fall.
"Last year I was kind of ... I wasn't the smartest guy," Bray said frankly. "I was kind of dumb. This year, [I'm] just [trying] to get my act together and get this team where it needs to be."
Bray remembers where his act was when UT's 2011 abruptly ended. Bray, battling illness with his thumb still not 100 percent, completed just 15 of 38 passes with two interceptions in the Vols' ugly loss at Kentucky. His accuracy was off, and the Vols looked lifeless on offense.
The 6-foot-6 quarterback called it his worst performance ever both in the immediate aftermath and earlier this week.
"I know I played terrible," he said. "The team played terrible, too, but as the quarterback I kind of started it off going downhill."
Like he did after the Music City Bowl loss to end his freshman season, Bray still hasn't watched a replay of the Kentucky game. That's the usual routine for him "since I was little." Win or lose, don't watch the last game of any season.
The Vols want to see the same quarterback that averaged 332 yards per game and tossed 14 touchdowns in the first four games of 2011. But Bray's numbers are much better against lesser competition, and he's yet to make it through an entire season. Though he played gallantly in taking a beating after Justin Hunter got hurt against Florida, Bray and UT's offense was visibly frustrated against Georgia.
It might take a different Tyler Bray for UT to win next season. Some Vols have noticed a difference.
"He's older than last year," Hunter said. "He's getting better. We've all known each other so well now, he knows where we're going to be at. We're just growing up together."
"He's still leading this team," tailback Rajion Neal said. "We've still got faith in him. He just looks like he's getting better with time."
Tailback Marlin Lane added Bray has been more of a leader.
"He was one last year," he said. "But he's getting more outspoken and helping everybody with their assignments and alignments and getting everything going."
Perhaps there is a difference in Tyler Bray.
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 ...