Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Tennessee sophomore Tyler Bray.
• Typecasting. If you know one thing about Tyler Bray, know this: The kid's no tweener. He is unusually tall (6-foot-6), unusually skinny (he may have cracked 200 pounds during his freshman campaign) and unusually slow (as a recruit, his 40 time was listed as a Marino-esque 5.45). If he can't make it as a pocket passer, he's not going to line up anywhere else.
Fortunately for him, Bray's emergence at the front of the Vols' offensive youth movement over the last month of the regular season helped salvage a 2-6 start and likely entrenched him as the starter for the next three years. It also inevitably evoked the last lanky, lumbering West Coast native who left Knoxville as a four-year starter, Erik Ainge, a comparison that may have an ominous ring for Vol fans this fall: After leading an unlikely run to the SEC East title as a freshman, Ainge's sophomore slump in 2005 included multiple benchings and eventually a season-ending injury en route to UT's first losing season in 25 years. Four years prior to that, though, eventual four-year starter Casey Clausen rebounded from a mediocre freshman effort to lead a division title run of his own — complete with a top-five finish in the final polls — as a sophomore in 2001. So the new kid can still go either way.
• At his best... By November, there wasn't much point in trying to bring anyone along slowly in the midst of a foundering season, and it didn't take 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.
|More QB Focus|
|• ROBERT GRIFFIN, Baylor|
|• JAKE HEAPS, BYU|
|• AARON MURRAY, Georgia|
|• CHRIS RELF|
|• DAN PERSA, Northwestern|
|• BRANDON WEEDEN, Oklahoma State|
|• DARRON THOMAS, Oregon|
Two of those receivers, fellow freshmen Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, are big, hyped targets — Rivals ranked both among the top 100 incoming recruits in the country last year — who wasted no time flashing their big-play potential: Their 27 combined receptions for the year were good for 21.5 yards per catch with nine touchdowns. 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 with Rogers and Hunter coming of age and Ryan Mallett's golden arm ascending to the NFL, there won't be a more lethal deep passing attack in the SEC.
• At his worst... Bray's success down the stretch is graded on three curves: On the first, yes, his production was doubly impressive for a true freshman, and no, he was not particularly well protected by an extremely green offensive line. On the other hand, it also came against a sampling of some of the worst secondaries in America: His 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. 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 dropping in a zone blitz.
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. He tossed three picks in the bowl loss to North Carolina alone, including a game-clinching bullet into the arms of wide-open Quan Sturdivant in overtime:
Accounting for linemen and linebackers dropping into throwing lanes was an issue down to the final pass of the season.
That is all.
• What to expect in the fall. Bray was absolutely brutal in the spring game, initiating a new round of anxiety about his almost nonexistent track record against competent defenses. But there's no denying the spark he brought to a foundering team last November — a team that had barely escaped against UAB a few weeks earlier as Bray watched from the bench — or the potential of his top two receivers as they 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 — will look far more promising on the field.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.