KNOXVILLE -- There is no public deadline to make a decision, and it's not yet set in stone.
Everything seems to indicate, however, that Tennessee will get its top quarterback back when the Volunteers put their bowl hopes on the line Saturday against upstart Vanderbilt. After missing the past five games with a broken thumb on this throwing hand, sophomore Tyler Bray could play.
"He's been cleared to go ahead and start practicing, which is right on schedule with what we expected," coach Derek Dooley said at his weekly news conference Monday. "I would probably list him, if I had to say a word, it's questionable, and I really won't know until we start practicing to see how he can take a snap, how accurately he can throw it and then he's going to have a learning curve because he's been out of ball for five to six weeks.
"That's a long time, so we'll see. We've still got to get the other guys ready to play. We'll just kind of take it day by day."
The hard cast on the right hand and wrist came off last week, and Bray has been throwing off and on since then. He was throwing with some normalcy during warmups before UT's loss to Arkansas last week in addition to other rehab exercises. Dooley called it "premature" to say Bray would get all the first-team reps this week in practice, and the coach didn't set a time by which the staff must know if Bray can play or not and continue preparation based on that verdict.
"The reality is if he's ready to go, we'd be crazy not to at least give him a shot given the inconsistency that we've had at that position," Dooley said.
Matt Simms completed just 38 percent of his passes with three interceptions in his two starts against LSU and Alabama, which prompted Dooley to try true freshman Justin Worley, who had two starts in which he was benched and a solid performance against Middle Tennessee State. Worley completed 55 percent of his passes, but he threw costly interceptions against South Carolina and Arkansas.
Though the Vols mustered only six points in three-plus quarters with a healthy Bray against Georgia, they've scored just 23 points in four Southeastern Conference games without him.
"When you can't put points on the board, it demoralizes your defense a little bit to keep going out there and trying to stop them," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "Quarterback is a huge part of the team, and without one we are pretty much nothing."
Other Vols relayed similar messages.
"That would be a good lift," said defensive back Prentiss Waggner. "We know the type of talent Tyler is. I saw him out there in pregame throwing the ball and looking like he was making all the throws."
Bray completed 66 percent of his throws for 1,579 yards with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions before his injury. Whether he can return to that level in his first live action in six weeks with a thumb that may not be 100 percent healed remains to be seen.
Though the ultimate decision may not come until later in the week, the Commodores, who are second in the SEC in interceptions and fourth in sacks, are preparing for Bray.
"When you're able to get a guy back like that on your roster, I think it has an effect on the coaches in terms of confidence in what they can call," said James Franklin, Vanderbilt's first-year coach. "Receivers seem to run better routes when they've got their guy; tight ends, same thing. It'll have a spark for them for sure. If you look at what they're doing offensively, it hasn't changed a whole lot."
The Vols kept Bray heavily involved with the team while he's been out, including attendance at practices, meetings and games in addition to what Dooley called "quarterback school." How much of an impact that new perspective will have for Bray is unknown.
"We'll find out when he comes back," Dooley said. "He's been engaged with the game plan. He's watched film. I was sitting on the plane the other night [after the Arkansas game] watching the game, and he was right there next to me taking in everything.
"Tyler likes ball; he loves ball; he wants to play. I think he's learning more about the schematic part of it, and he's enjoying it. I hope it will pay off."
The Vols seem to think it will.
"It'd mean a lot," receiver Rajion Neal said. "It'd definitely bring a spark. A lot of guys would be excited to definitely see him back out there with a new energy. It'd just be a guy we're used to, we're comfortable with, a guy that just knows his reads, this game, this offense.
"That swagger that he carries when he's out there -- he's fearless, he's not afraid to make throws [into] tight windows; he's just a playmaker. He feels that he really can't be stopped."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.