KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There’s cool, and then there’s California cool.
Tennessee sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray is definitely the latter.
There are times, at least as far as Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is concerned, when he’s almost too cool.
It’s one of Bray’s greatest strengths when he’s in the pocket. He’s absolutely fearless and says he laughs now when he sees some of the shots he took a year ago.
“It’s kind of funny watching yourself get leveled on the field,” said Bray, who’s from Kingsburg, Calif., which is just south of Fresno.
What isn’t funny, not to Dooley or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, is seeing Bray lose his mental edge the way he did in the Orange & White spring game last Saturday. On a windy day with receivers surrounding him he wasn’t used to throwing to, Bray finished 5-of-30.
It’s a performance that wasn’t necessarily reflective of his spring. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of performance he can’t have if he wants to lead this team back into the SEC’s upper echelon.
Bray was lights out down the stretch last season, leading the Vols to four straight wins and throwing 12 touchdown passes along the way.
But he was going against four of the weaker defenses on Tennessee’s schedule. And even though he threw four touchdown passes against North Carolina in the bowl game, he also threw three interceptions. The last one came in the second overtime and paved the way for the Tar Heels to win it with a field goal.
“Every time we call that play, it shows up and coach (Jim) Chaney will joke about it and give me crap about that play,” Bray said. “I didn’t see the linebacker drop and threw it right to him. When I watch the film now, I’m like, ‘How did you not see him?’”
The reality is that there was a lot Bray didn’t see last season. He made it through with a gunslinger mentality that’s fun to watch for the fans, but tends to makes coaches old before their time.
Bray was able to make it work because he does have such a strong arm and because he is so unflappable with 275-pound defenders bearing down on him from the outside.
To his credit, he knows it’s not going to always be that way against the premier defenses in this league.
“There were a few times when I got caught in situations where it was more like, ‘OK, let’s see what’s going to happen, make a play and hope that it works out,’” conceded Bray, who finished with 18 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and was one of only two SEC quarterbacks (Ryan Mallett being the other) to post four 300-yard passing games.
Having gone through a second spring, Bray feels much better about the playbook and feels like he has a deeper understanding of what defenses are trying to do to him.
He’s also tried to become more of a vocal leader, even though that doesn’t come naturally to him.
“He’s got more command of the huddle. You can tell,” sophomore receiver Da’Rick Rogers said. “He’s just more confident, too. He knows he’s the starting quarterback and knows what his role is on this team.”
While nobody questions Bray’s arm talent and his ability to fit the ball in tight spaces, Dooley says it is a fair question to wonder whether or not Bray is ready to be the kind of leader the Vols need at quarterback on an every-game basis.
“He hasn’t beaten Alabama. He hasn’t beaten Florida. He hasn’t beaten Georgia,” Dooley said. “He’s had flashes, and he certainly has quarterback skills. He’s very instinctive. He’s got excellent presence in the pocket. He’s tall. So he can see, and he has an extremely accurate arm. He’s got some baseline qualities that give him a chance to be very good in this league.
“Now, what comes with that? The command of the offense and understanding of defenses are where he has to get better.”
Dooley said the Vols were careful not to put too much on Bray last season as a true freshman. That will have to change in 2011 because defenses will be ready for him.
“That’s when we’re going to see if he can do it every down,’ Dooley said. “He’s got a lot of qualities to do it, but he’s got to go out there and prove it.”
In typical fashion, Bray sort of shrugs when asked if he’s ready to go out and put up big numbers against the best teams on Tennessee’s schedule.
“You won’t know until you get out there,” he said.
He’s added some weight to his lanky 6-foot-6 frame. He was 195 pounds last season, but says he’s now closer to 205.
His teammates insist Bray’s more excitable than he lets on. He just doesn’t show it very often.
What he does have is a pretty keen sense of humor and isn’t afraid to go after his coaches.
In talking about how much the Vols’ offensive line and running game have improved, Bray deadpanned, “They’re veterans now up front, so they’re opening up holes that even coach Chaney could run through.”
It was obvious by Bray’s smile that he’d been saving that one, but that’s about as much emotion as you’re going to see out of him.
And on the field, he’s Mr. Flatliner.
“I’m never going to get too flustered,” Bray said. “I try to keep it calm so everyone else is calm.
“You keep it in that straight line.”