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Dr. Saturday

Ad-libbed debut behind them, can Tennessee’s young guns stick to the script in Act Two?

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Part of SEC Week.

All things considered, 2010 isn't going to go down as the worst year in Tennessee history. But it may be the weirdest. Barely a week into the new year, the head coach abruptly bailed for the West Coast, to be hastily replaced by an on-the-fly, fourth-choice hire, Derek Dooley, better known for his last name than his record. Immediately, he was forced to hold together a recruiting class still being wooed by the outgoing staff. By the end of spring practice, Dooley had presided over the premature departures of the team's most high-profile player, its only experienced offensive lineman and its only experienced quarterback.

By midseason, his predecessor's only recruiting class was effectively up in smoke, and Dooley had presided over most lopsided home loss in school history, the most bizarre, emotionally wrenching loss of the regular season and double-digit losses at the hands of rivals Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina en route to a 2-6 record.

To get from that point to something approximating "optimism," you have be grading on a pretty steep curve. But as curves go, they don't come much steeper than Tennessee's offensive lineup from that point on: By kickoff of the bowl game, first and second-year players had combined to start 65 games over the course of the season on offense alone, led by a freshman invasion that eventually featured the starting quarterback, starting fullback, three starting offensive linemen and two regulars at wide receiver. More to the point, the fact that the words "bowl game" were still in the vocabulary, courtesy of a four-game November win streak to even the regular season at 6-6, was a validation of the youth movement all by itself.

After that, optimism for 2011 comes fairly easily — and hiding right behind it, the lingering suspicion that the kids aren't quite as grown up yet as they sometimes looked over the last five games.{YSP:MORE}

By Halloween, there wasn't much point in trying to bring anyone along slowly in the midst of a foundering season, and it didn't take quarterback Tyler Bray long to throw off the reins. Once he'd wrested the job from junior Matt Simms with a pair of second-half touchdown passes in an eventual loss at South Carolina, Bray averaged 35 passes per game in his five starts, went well over 300 yards passing in four of them and connected on multiple touchdown passes in all five. Nine of his 18 TD strikes over the last six games covered at least 20 yards, to five different receivers. Thousand-yard tailback Tauren Poole was a fan favorite, but by the time the bowl game rolled around the running game was an afterthought, at best.

The really scary part for defensive coordinators: Two of those targets were fellow freshmen, Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who rode in on a wave of recruiting hype — Rivals ranked Rogers as the No. 2 incoming receiver in the 2010, Hunter as No. 8, with explicit comparisons to Calvin Johnson and Dwayne Jarrett, respectively — and flashed that potential throughout the season. Between them, almost half of their 27 receptions for the year covered at least 20 yards, good for 21.5 yards per catch with nine touchdowns. All of which came almost entirely in a reserve role; actually, Bray's most immediate rapport was with senior Denarius Moore, whose breakout November left him as the SEC leader in yards per reception. But even in Moore's absence, with Rogers and Hunter coming of age and Ryan Mallett's golden arm ascending from Arkansas to the NFL, there won't be a more lethal deep passing attack in the SEC this year or the next.

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At least, that's how it appeared as the curtain fell on Act One. But consider the setting: Bray's first three victories as a starter came over three sad-sack opponents (Memphis, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt) that all finished among the bottom 25 nationally — 95th or worse — in pass efficiency defense, en route to a grand total of six victories between them. Kentucky offered slightly more resistance, but remained Kentucky. As good as the kids looked, the question was unavoidable: Who wouldn't look good against that schedule?

Against the murderer's row that laid the Vols to waste over the first seven games, Bray didn't play at all against Oregon, Florida or LSU and didn't turn any heads in relief duty against Georgia or Alabama; his first pass at South Carolina was picked off and returned for a touchdown by a defensive lineman dropping into a short zone. Exactly two months later, his last pass of the season was picked off to effectively seal a North Carolina win by a linebacker dropping into a short zone. That was the flip side of the "gunslinger" mentality: While he was racking up touchdown passes, Bray also served up seven interceptions in the last three games.

Three of those came opposite his four touchdown passes in the bowl game, where the Two Faces of Bray emerged in all their maddening glory / pain. His brutal performance in the spring game did nothing to quell anxiety about his nearly nonexistent track record against competent defenses. But there's no denying the spark he brought to a foundering team — a team that had barely escaped an upset bid by UAB a few weeks earlier as Bray watched from the bench — or the potential of his top two receivers as they begin to move out of the "growing pains" phase.

Still, growth may be more qualitative than quantitative: Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina all await again before Halloween, the same lineup that handed Tennessee five of its six regular season losses last year by an average margin of 17 points. Bray didn't start against any of them, but if he can slash that gap to single digits and pull an upset somewhere in the mix, a lateral move on the stat sheet — or possibly even a slight step back — might just wind up looking like steady progress on the field.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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