- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Tyler Bray’s laid-back California persona can get the best of him sometimes.
Sure, it helps in the internal stress department and makes life a little lighter, but on the football field it’s been a detriment to his development and his team at times.
For as gifted a passer Bray is, he admits that his laziness caused he and Tennessee’s offense to take steps back, especially last season.
“Sometimes, I get a little lazy and tend to relax with my footwork and that’s where my bad throws tend to come in,” said the rising junior quarterback, who has thrown for 3,832 yards, 35 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 16 career games at Tennessee.
That laziness might have cost the Vols a chance at the postseason last fall, as Bray struggled through Tennessee’s 10-7 loss to Kentucky to end the season. Bray completed just 15 of his 38 passes and threw a touchdown to two interceptions in Tennessee’s first loss to the Wildcats in 26 meetings. The loss also terminated the Vols’ bowl hopes.
“I know a lot of Tennessee fans weren’t happy with how we finished out the season,” Bray said. “They hadn’t lost to Kentucky in 20-something years, so to be the team that breaks that streak isn’t very good.”
Bray said he took the loss extremely hard. He had a sick feeling leaving that game. While he still wasn’t 100 percent healthy after a broken thumb kept him out five weeks, Bray put the loss on himself and vowed to change the way he leads and plays.
That created more detailed meetings with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney before spring practice. The two talked about standing taller and more confident in the pocket by ditching Bray’s lackadaisical tendencies of throwing off of his back foot, slowly dropping back, dipping his elbow and botching his footwork.
It’s a concept that seems so simple, especially for someone playing at such a high level of football, but Bray admits it was an awkward adjustment at first. He was so used to relying on his arm strength and accuracy that he felt technique was a little overrated. He had won so much with pure talent, so why change?
But every time his mind shifted to those silly thoughts, he remembered the Kentucky game and the pain he and those around Tennessee’s program felt. It motivated him to concentrate whenever he stepped back to throw during the offseason. From 7-on-7s to ordinary passing sessions, Bray made conscious efforts to focus on the little things.
Almost immediately, Bray felt the difference. There was more power and accuracy in this throws. He was more fluid and therefore felt more dangerous with the ball in his hands.
“There are times when you have to try to step into it and let it all loose,” Bray said.
And he’s doing that more with his good new habits.
But it wasn’t just mechanics Bray wanted to work on. Bray wants to be a real leader for Tennessee. Last year, Bray admits he coasted and just accepted his role as the leader because he was the quarterback. It was easy to call him a leader, but he never really thought he was. There was no leading with his words and when he was hurt there was no leading by his actions.
That’s a rotten combination and Bray could tell when he returned late in the season that it affected how his teammates viewed him. When he told players to do something, there was hesitation and sometimes resistance. Now, equipped with a louder, more confident voice, Bray said he’s earning more respect in and out of the huddle.
“This year, they’ll do just about anything,” Bray said.
Now, Bray, who said he still feels some popping in his thumb at times but insists that he’s completely healthy, is ready to take Tennessee’s offense further. He’s yet to complete a full season in Knoxville and hopes this is the year it happens.
He feels confident in the way his teammates are coming along and he’s encouraged by the receiving threats he’ll once again have at his disposal, especially Justin Hunter, who Bray expects to be fully healthy this fall following last year’s knee injury.
But in the end, it all comes back to Bray. He’s the linchpin -- whether he’s on or off -- so he’s making sure his laziness doesn’t return.
“I’m the quarterback,” he said, “so our offense isn’t going to move unless I’m moving.”