Tyler Bray, the lanky 6-foot-6-inch gunslinger from California, started the first game of his young career Saturday. Bray needed only 30 minutes to place his name in the Tennessee record books.
In the first half alone, Bray completed 17-of-28 passes for 308 yards and five touchdowns, both records for a UT quarterback in a single half.
The number of touchdowns is even more impressive considering that five different receivers caught them. By spreading the ball around to several position players, he was able to make the defense account for everyone on the field. This is something Bray used to his advantage.
“It helps when a defense can’t focus on just one receiver or one person, and they have to worry about everyone,” Bray said. “It also helps if the receivers don’t feel as if they are decoys on routes and can expect the ball on every play.”
Bray entered the game on the heels of an up-and-down performance against South Carolina, which saw him throw two touchdown passes but also one interception, which was returned for a touchdown. For the season, Bray has thrown seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
On his quarterback’s overall performance, coach Derek Dooley was cautious to anoint Bray as the next Peyton Manning, but at the same time, was pleased with his performance.
“I made the statement last night,” Dooley said. “It pains me a little bit to say he played well, because he’s a freshman and went in there in his first game. But he played really well. He made some great throws. He avoided the rush really well. He got rid of the ball and took some hard shots.”
Bray’s game last week came at almost the perfect time for the Big Orange faithful. In a season marred by several blowout losses, Bray provided some much-needed relief. He not only helped stop a four-game losing streak and put the Vols in contention for a possible bowl game, he helped the offense match its season high for points scored in a game, with 50.
This offensive output is something Dooley attributed to the inherent talents of his new signal-caller.
“I think he’s just an instinctive thrower,” Dooley said. “He has a good feel for the rush and where the breakdowns are starting to occur. He has an ability to get rid of it quickly, which you need to have when you play quarterback to avoid negative plays. I think he’s got a good feel for where to place the ball.”
Bray’s performance since that third-quarter interception against South Carolina is something that he has chalked up to developing as a quarterback.
“I’ve started to understand the offense a lot more and see the big picture, not just the routes and the receiver,” Bray said. “I saw the defense and everything else that went along with it. No more thinking, just go out there and throw the ball.”
Bray’s play on Saturday earned him the SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
Going forward though, Bray will face three more SEC defenses to close out the season, and as Dooley said, one performance is great, but three more would be even better.
“The challenge is going to be can Tyler keep his focus and perform like that every week,” Dooley said.
UT entered Saturday’s game against Memphis with a handful of issues. And in the end, the Vols’ 50-14 drubbing of the Tigers answered at least one of those questions — who the quarterback will be.