But coaches will make the final decision
By Andrew Gribble
If Tyler Bray had it his way, he wouldn't have been throwing passes to Justin Hunter three hours before Tennessee kicked off against Arkansas last week.
The sophomore quarterback would have been throwing passes to Da'Rick Rogers, Mychal Rivera and the rest of the healthy Vols. In Bray's mind, he was ready to go right then and there.
That's why Bray didn't hesitate Wednesday when asked if he was ready to play Saturday (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.) against Vanderbilt (5-5, 2-5 SEC).
"I don't like watching the game. I didn't pay for a ticket," Bray said in his first interview since breaking his thumb in early October.
The final decision, though, won't be up to him. He's proved more than once that his medical opinion can't be trusted.
"The first week he came out there with the cast on he was like just 'Cut it off and let me go out there and try,' " quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. "He has a lot of energy and he wants to play."
Coach Derek Dooley stuck with the "questionable" tag he labeled Bray with on Monday, and he saw nothing — either positive or negative — to sway him to change that after Wednesday's practice. It's a decision, Dooley said, he's willing to wait making until a few hours before Saturday's game, which UT (4-6, 0-6) must win if it hopes to qualify for a post-season bowl.
"We limited his reps a little bit, especially early in practice so he could kind of manage it through the rest of the deal," Dooley said. "We'll see. We just have to take it day-to-day, no real difference from yesterday."
The Vols are banking on Bray being as close as possible to the same as he was early in the season, when he was completing better than 65 percent of his passes for 1,459 yards, 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
They're banking on some differences, too.
Since the very first practice following the injury, Bray has been an ever-present fixture around the
Vols. Before he was casually throwing passes, he was rebounding balls from receivers, one-handed, and relaying them to his two replacements, Matt Simms and Justin Worley. When the cameras and reporters went away, Bray would rotate from station to station — even on the defensive side of the field — with either Dooley, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney or Hinshaw to get a better understanding of the game.
Bray said it was initially tough not to feel sorry for himself, but that quickly changed once he became just as busy as he was when he was healthy.
"Toward the end of it I was more about the team, trying to get them to where they needed to be," Bray said. "You realize how much football really means, too.
"You kind of take it for granted when you've got to come out and practice every day. When that's taken away from you, you kind of see things differently."
Hinshaw said he's already noticed that different outlook.
"He's come out with a lot of confidence understanding the defense and understanding what's going on," Hinshaw said. "He's very focused on what he needs to do this week."
Numerous players Tuesday and coaches Wednesday said Bray's presence, alone, has lifted some spirits on a team that has averaged fewer than six points per game in the SEC games he's missed. When prompted about his impact on the positive vibes, Bray cracked a joke — "I wouldn't say so much me. The orange dog that's rolling around, that's definitely the reason." — and he also laughed off questions about potentially playing with a glove on his throwing hand, saying he's been "messing around with them" since Pop Warner football.
It was similar to the sense of humor he provided in his periodic Twitter updates, the ones that would notify his thousands of followers that he was "rehabbing" by using his thumb to play video games.
There was so much more to it than that, of course, but Bray doesn't tip his hand easily.
"There's some things that he has to continue to get better at this week on Thursday and Friday from a mental aspect as well as a physical," Hinshaw said. "He's working hard. He has a great attitude and he's out there doing a good job."