KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee won't get Tyler Bray back in time for this weekend's trip to Arkansas, but the Volunteers wake up today with a better idea on a possible return for the starting quarterback.
The sophomore had the cast protecting his broken right thumb removed Monday afternoon after coach Derek Dooley met with the local media at his weekly news conference. UT's doctors examined Bray's thumb to see how much it's healed since he broke it in the fourth quarter of the loss to Georgia a month ago.
"We've got to look at the X-ray; we've got to feel his strength levels," Dooley said. "If both those things check out, which the likelihood is they won't, then I think we go to a CAT scan, and that's the final determining factor. The pain is not the issue; the pain is what he can tolerate. The issue is the bone has got to be healed because we're not going to put him out there ... the bone has to be healed.
"He's got to be able to tolerate the pain and be able to perform. If he can't go out there and throw it how he's used to throwing it, why play him?"
Bray's expected absence means true freshman Justin Worley, who's coming off a 291-yard performance with a touchdown and no interceptions against Middle Tennessee State, will make his third college start Saturday against the eighth-ranked Razorbacks, who are still alive in the race for the Southeastern Conference's West Division title.
Dooley said the Vols' confidence in Worley has never wavered, even when the coach pulled him in his debut against South Carolina.
"We had it going into South Carolina, he just had first-game jitters," Dooley said. "Justin's challenge will be that he's playing on the road, he's playing an SEC team, a top-10 team. There will be a lot more adversity than he faced [against MTSU], but you've got to get the first step before you can get the second. We'll see how he handles it."
Through the first month of the season, Bray and Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson were first and second in the SEC in passing yards and total offense. The offensive philosophies go beyond the quarterback, though. The Razorbacks, under third-year coach Bobby Petrino, don't need to spread out the offense every play to get all their yards through the air.
"They're the other pro-style offense in our league, so we enjoy watching them because they're like us philosophically," Dooley said. "When you look at [Petrino's] numbers, I always feel like they're playing their best when [Wilson's] throwing it around 35, 38 times. I've told you guys that's where we need to be on a four-quarter game, not up in the 40s or 50s."
Despite ugly second halves against Georgia, LSU and Alabama, UT's defense has continued to improve statistically. The Vols are 31st nationally in total defense (343 yards allowed per game) and 28th in scoring defense (21.2 papg). The improvements going beyond the stats, though, for a unit that started five first-year players against MTSU.
"We have a lot of guys who I think are showing improvement, especially on defense," Dooley said. "We have about six or seven young players that are progressing the way we need them to. We just need to keep going on that track."
The coach specifically named defensive tackle Maurice Couch and defensive backs Brian Randolph, Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore in addition to freshman linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, who are first and fifth on the team in tackles.
Left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and tight end Cameron Clear were two of the top recruits UT signed in February, but the four-star prospects have not had major impacts as freshmen. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound Richardson, one of the strongest players on the team, got a late start after offseason shoulder surgery erased his first two weeks of training camp and relegated him to only the Vols' field-goal and extra-point protection units.
"It's the dependability issue, that's the biggest thing," Dooley said. "He was just so set back and needs a lot of reps. If we can put him in and feel like he can go out there and function, [we'll do it]. He's got a lot of good qualities: He brings a lot of energy and spunk.
"Of course he's huge. We want to get him in there as quickly as we can, but I don't want to force it."
The 6-6, 265-pound Clear apparently has edged ahead of fellow freshman Brendan Downs as the second tight end. He played 30 snaps against MTSU and made his first career pass reception.
"He's starting to show up," Dooley said. "We'll probably keep playing him, keep integrating him. He's big and athletic. Brendan's hitting that freshman wall a little bit, so it's good that Cam's here. Cam hit the freshman wall when he showed up [like] 'Man, we've got to do all that?'"
UT's home finale against Vanderbilt on Nov. 19 will kick off at 7 p.m. and be televised by ESPNU. ... Starting tight end Mychal Rivera is day to day with a foot injury, Dooley said. ... The Vols expect kicker Michael Palardy to be ready after the sophomore missed the MTSU game with an injury he suffered after practice late last week. ... Backup kicker Chip Rhome has a pulled muscle, which means Derrick Brodus, who handled all the place-kicking duties last week after being called less than an hour before kickoff, could travel to Arkansas.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.