KNOXVILLE -- Former Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge was on a Knoxville radio show a few weeks ago discussing what might be in store for UT sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray this season.
"You walk around campus before that first game," Ainge said, "and everybody tells you how great you are, how the offense is going to score 40 a night. Then you play Florida the second or third game of the year and they hit you in the face five or six times and you realize it's not going to be that easy."
Ainge understands Bray's upcoming season better than most. He started a good portion of his freshman year in 2004, helping the Volunteers to the SEC East crown before being injured in a home loss to Notre Dame. He also began the 2005 season as a starter before eventually losing that spot to senior Rick Clausen.
No one expects Bray to wind up on the bench after throwing for 12 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards in the Vols' final four regular-season victories over Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
But throw in his four touchdowns and three interceptions in the Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina and Bray also tossed seven INTs in his final three starts.
And none of those five teams was probably as good as Florida, which the Vols must visit on Sept. 17 in their first road contest of the year.
Still, as UT begins preseason practice today, second-year coach Derek Dooley likes what he's heard about Bray's development.
"Everything that I've heard has been positive," Dooley said. "And it starts with his level of commitment. You earn the respect to be a leader, to me, based on your level of commitment to the program. I think Tyler's proving that to our team."
Senior running back Tauren Poole agreed.
"You've seen it in the 7-on-7 drills all summer," he said. "Tyler's taken on much more of a leadership role. I think he's really beginning to understand what Coach Dooley expects of him."
But what should the Big Orange Nation expect? Yes, the 6-foot-6 California Kid is, by his estimate, up to 202 pounds, which moves him somewhere north of anorexic but a good deal south of ideal in the SEC's "How to Build a Quarterback" handbook.
He's probably also still a tad bit too footloose and carefree for the worrywarts among us, as witness this quote: "Sometimes I don't even realize what I'm doing until the play is done, and then I'm like, 'OK, that worked.'"
But he's clearly trying to look and sound more Peyton-esque.
Concerning his envied struggle to gain weight, Bray said, "I'm pretty much eating constantly. There's probably not an hour that goes by where I'm not eating. I feel stronger, bigger, able to put a little more zip on the ball."
Nor is he letting many hours go by without visiting the film room, not always a Bray strength during his freshman season.
"Coach [Jim] Chaney is always good at -- I don't want to say 'nag' because I don't want to get in trouble," Bray said with a smile about the offensive coordinator. "But kind of just chirping in my ear to go to the film room and watch as much as possible. I have all the games from last year in my dorm. I watch them on my laptop. Watching as much film as possible really helps."
And just to prove he's willing to learn from his mistakes, Bray can vividly recall the second-overtime interception that cost the Vols the Music City Bowl.
"It's a play-action pass," he said. "I have [Channing] Fugate out in the flat. Gerald [Jones] and D-Mo [Denarius Moore] are coming on the back side. And I threw it right to [North Carolina's] No. 42. I try to forget and move on, but that game and that play are hard to forget."
Funny thing is, forgetting the bad stuff was what Bray often did best as a rookie, as when he threw an interception for a touchdown early in the third quarter at South Carolina but came right back to toss two of the prettiest touchdowns UT had recorded all season.
But forgetting the last game of a season is always the toughest when the next game is always at least eight months away.
It's 33 days away today, however. Thirty-three days of everybody outside the UT football family telling Bray how great he is, how this year's older, wiser Big Orange offense is going to average 40 points a game.
Perhaps that's why the first action photo of Bray in the 2011 media guide doesn't appear until page 110 and takes up only a twelfth of the page, albeit under the heading "Maxwell Award Watch List." The second shot is six pages later. Only one other picture of No. 8 follows.
If UT is hoping to minimize both the attention and pressure on Bray, the media guide certainly did its part.
To his credit, so his Dooley, who said of the player certain to get hit in the face at least a couple of times at Florida, "He's a work in progress."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.