Tennessee Stat Book
There’s no real way to prepare for that first hit.
Tyler Bray was relatively sheltered in high school, and he’s almost completely protected in practice and scrimmages at Tennessee thanks to a green, non-contact jersey.
There’s also the small matter of a body that doesn’t look like it’s built for the violent nature of life under center in the SEC, but ready or not, when the shots started coming the true freshman didn’t blink. In fact, if anything heading into Bray’s third game leading the offense on Saturday at Vanderbilt (TV: CSS, 7:30 p.m.), he seems to be inviting some contact.
“I just kind of laughed at the guy,” Bray said thinking back to his first big hit. “He hit me and started talking trash, and I was like, ‘Keep coming, keep hitting me. It’s fine.’
“I didn’t get hit much in high school, but coming here I knew I was going to get hit. I just knew I couldn’t let it affect me, so I just try not to let it.”
Judging by his numbers over the last 10 quarters since UT (4-6, 1-5 SEC) threw him into the fire after halftime against South Carolina’s tenacious pass rush, the physical toll hasn’t slowed him down any.
Since throwing an interception on his first attempt, he hasn’t tossed another in the last 81 attempts, he’s piled up 10 touchdowns, more than 800 yards passing and has only a little soreness to show for it behind a line that has had its protection issues this season. And though Bray didn’t face all that much pressure against Memphis, sandwiched around that blowout were two of the hardest-hitting defenses in the SEC — though neither had any real success rattling him in the pocket.
“The thing that you never know is how does he handle when he gets hit — hard and often,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “It’s easy to stand there in practice with the green shirt on. But you never know when he’s getting banged around and they’re disguising coverages how he’s going to handle it. I was really impressed.
“I didn’t really realize in the game how hard of shots he took, and he took some. From that standpoint, that’s a good thing. He evades the rush probably a little better than you ever know in practice, too. Those two things you really never get a bead on in practice. How can he handle the hits and how can he evade the rush? He’s proven to do that in two games here, so hopefully he’ll build on it.”
Ideally Bray wouldn’t ever have to bother with becoming better suited to deal with hits in the pocket, though the combination of an inexperienced offensive line, a conference known for dominant defenses and his own growing pains holding the ball too long make that skill mandatory for survival.
The Commodores (2-8, 1-6 SEC) might not test it as much as the other teams in the league he’s already faced, but either way it doesn’t seem to bother Bray in the least. But even if he’s able to shrug off the contact and smile, the guys in charge of keeping him in one piece would prefer he not have to worry about it in the first place.
“We love to see that right there, but we take that as a personal problem,” left tackle Dallas Thomas said. “Even if he’s still tough and taking hits — that could be our fault or the routes the (receivers) are running or any other thing — we take that as a personal problem if he’s getting hit.
“No offensive lineman wants to see their quarterback get hit like that, and we’re going to keep working at it, keep getting better so we don’t give up any hits.”
Even if the Vols can’t do that all the time, Bray has shown an ability to bounce right back — no experience necessary.
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.