KNOXVILLE -- Tyler Bray's sophomore season got off to a sizzling start.
Things began to fizzle for the Tennessee quarterback, however, before a season-ending dud.
Of all the reasons for the Volunteers' loss to Kentucky in November, an off day for a ailing Bray might have been one of the biggest as UT scored just seven points and struggling to find a rhythm offensively. Now entering his second offseason, the 6-foot-6 Bray will have to rediscover the path of improved he appeared to be on near the beginning of last season.
"It's been great," Vols coach Derek Dooley said of his conversations with Bray since the loss in Lexington. "He was crushed after the game. We had probably a two-hour talk a few days after, just reflecting. It was awesome dialogue."
Bray was sick the entire week leading up to UT's game with the Wildcats, which was easily his worst performance of the year. Still not 100 percent after breaking the thumb on his throwing hand seven weeks earlier, Bray completed just 15 of 38 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown and threw two interceptions. His accuracy was what suffered the most.
Never a big talker, Bray called his performance "horrible" and "embarrassing," but he added how he needed a break from football.
"Probably more than a few days, probably a few weeks," he said after the game. "We've been playing since last December pretty much. There are no breaks. If I could get away from football, it'd probably be good."
Bray did just that, returning home for an extended break over the holidays. Most of the Vols have started to return with the spring semester starting on Wednesday. Unlike most of his teammates, however, Bray probably has the biggest influence on UT's fortunes simply because he's the quarterback, although Dooley still must hire a defensive coordinator and two other staff openings.
The Vols went just 1-4 with Bray sidelined and scored just 23 points in four Southeastern Conference games. In the four league games he did play, however, Bray struggled: he completed a shade under 50 percent of his passes for less than 250 yards per game and threw six touchdowns to six interceptions. Against Montana, Cincinnati and Buffalo, Bray's completion percent was more than 75, and he threw for 1,040 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The absence of talented receiver Justin Hunter and the Vols' struggles at receiver were factors, but some of the struggles were on Bray as well. With Hunter, All-SEC receiver Da'Rick Rogers and an offensive line that allowed just 16 sacks in 400 pass attempts, the Vols hope Bray's injury and another disappointing end to a season provide the motivation to bounce back.
"I think sometimes those hard things are good for you in life, and people hate for me to say that because nobody wants hard things to happen in our program," Dooley said.
"But sometimes it makes you better, and that's what adversity does. It really sharpens your focus and allows you to acknowledge some things you need to work on. It's going to help us as coaches, and it's going to help Tyler and it's going to help all of our players."