Wiedmer: Is Bray being better good enough for Vols?

Wiedmer: Is Bray being better good enough for Vols?

April 22nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE -- All week, as the University of Tennessee's White team players talked trash about how they were going to embarrass their counterparts in Saturday's Orange and White spring game, Orange safety Brian Randolph remained quiet.

"I wanted to get the job done first," Randolph said a few minutes after his team's 17-14 victory. "I'd rather do my talking after the game."

So what would his message be to his more verbose opponents now that he had won?

"Get that ketchup and mustard ready for those hot dogs," he said with a laugh. "Because I know I'm going to have my A-1 [sauce] and steak knife ready."

That was the immediate reward for the Orange and White victor. The winner ate steak; the losers, well, tube steak, as some folks refer to hot dogs.

But the more important questions to be answered began with how far the Volunteers have advanced since last season's 5-7 record and last-place finish in the SEC East?

Were coach Derek Dooley's seven new assistants making a positive impact, especially offensive line coach Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri?

And lastly, is quarterback Tyler Bray finally ready to post victories against the Alabamas, Georgias and Floridas of the Southeastern Conference, rather than merely the Vanderbilts and Ole Misses of the league?

Actually, Volniacs might be happy with Bray merely establishing a winning streak in the Orange and White game. He won at the close of his first spring practice after enrolling in January of that year following an early graduation from his California High School. Then he went 5-for-30 in last year's loss, one of the most wretched performances in spring game history.

And by that standard only, Bray's 14-for-26 performance Saturday with one touchdown, no intereptions, 157 yards and one sack was a remarkable improvement.

Still, his White team lost, forcing the eating of hot dogs instead of steak. And a snap Bray fumbled on third down on the next-to-last possession forced a punt that may have cost his side the game.

"My fault. I didn't catch the snap," Bray said. "I had been fine all day with the snap until then, when it really counted."

Those worried about Bray will inderstandably seize on those four words -- "when ... it ... really ... counted."

Because they're all going to count soon enough, beginning with the Vols' Aug. 31 opener against North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome, where UT has lost five straight times.

And based on Saturday only, the Big Orange could lose to the Wolfpack. But no one should base anything on a spring game where seven new coaches are working, all of them dedicated to revealing as little as possible to a real opponent's staff.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about Saturday was the 35,421 who filed into Neyland Stadium to watch. That's the fourth largest spring game crowd in school history and either (a) a tribute to Vols loyalty, (b) an indictment on entertainment options throughout the rest of Knoxville on Saturday or (c) both.

Yet whatever either Bray or the Big Orange Nation wants to make of that late fumble -- which UT recovered, by the way -- all concerned seemed pleased with Bray's progress.

"He is a lot more patient; he's understanding the game; he's understanding the level of intensity that it takes every day to be good," Dooley said.

Added Randolph: "Tyler doesn't lead off to who he is passing to with his eyes. He's making a lot more right decisions. He's quicker with his release and he doesn't float the ball as much. He's had a great spring."

Said Bray: "I'm just more mature about the academic part of the game, just the knowledge of the game."

And none of that was up for debate. Bray looked smarter, stronger, more focused on winning the game than the passing yardage, even if he failed to win the game.

In truth, the worst mistake of the afternoon came on the in-house television feed, which kept showing N.C. State beating the Vols, 17-14, which may or may not cause superstitious Volniacs to lose sleep over the next 131 days between now and the game.

Said Dooley upon being made aware of the glitch: "In 1969 we could put a man on the moon, but we can't fix a logo?"

If that's really all that's left to fix between now and the last day of August, Dooley would seem to be right to be "real pleased with the spring."