James Stone had no idea what Tyler Bray was yelling about.
The Tennessee center was snapping the ball with his opposite hand — like he always does — and popping up to block his man — like he always does — during UT’s loss at Florida. The time between those two actions is nanoseconds. With a player like Gators defensive tackle Jaye Howard making his life miserable snap after snap, Stone could barely afford to complete his follow-through before looking upward, let alone look backward at Bray, who was primarily in the shotgun, to admire the fruits of his labor.
It wasn’t until Stone had a good angle at the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium JumboTron that he saw just how low and problematic his snaps were.
“I was like, ‘What happened?’ ” Stone said after practice Monday. “Then I was like, ‘Oh, man.’
“I was just thinking too fast and I was thinking it was all right and it wasn’t. It was going bad.”
Stone’s disappointment and frustration, though, went much deeper than that.
It followed him into the interview room immediately after the Vols’ 33-23 loss, into the film room in the days immediately after the biggest setback of his sophomore season and onto the practice field all throughout the bye week.
“It wasn’t a good deal at all,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “It struggled with the rhythm of the offense.
“James is the most accountable young man you’ll ever find. It bothered him greatly what took place.”
All indications are that time and reaffirmed trust from his teammates have healed Stone’s wounds. After two weeks’ worth of practice that saw him and Bray resuming the extra snapping sessions that consumed their summer, Stone is hoping to slip back into anonymity Saturday when the Vols (2-1, 0-1 SEC) take on Buffalo (1-3, 0-1 MAC) at Neyland Stadium (TV: CSS, 12:30 p.m.).
“Anytime any of us don’t do something good, if we have pride, we’ll come back and fight and work and try to do it better,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “That’s what James has done.”
The healing process was, perhaps, made easier by a care-free attitude from Bray. His confidence in Stone, he said, hasn’t wavered.
And, as Bray put it after practice recently, it wasn’t as if the bad snaps resulted in too many missed opportunities. Outside of one that trickled past Bray for a 13-yard loss late in the third quarter, there were no catastrophes, only annoyances.
“It really doesn’t (disrupt the play),” Bray said. “You know where everyone is going to be at. It doesn’t help see where the defense is. We still threw two touchdowns with the low snaps. So it didn’t make that big of a difference.”
If anything, Bray came into the game prepared for a wayward snap or two. In between all the time Bray and Stone, who is naturally left-handed but snaps with his right, worked to perfect their exchange, there also was time devoted to the inevitable during the summer.
Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said there’s no such thing as sympathy for a quarterback who receives a bad snap. It’s still his responsibility to know exactly where the receivers are after he locates and secures the football.
“Whether it’s a bad snap, good snap, whatever the situation. We’ve got to go execute the offense and go make it happen,” Hinshaw said. “We’ve got to be a baseball player, a shortstop. If there’s a bad snap, go make a play.”
Stone, of course, would prefer Bray avoids reliving his baseball days as much as possible. Remaining a fixture in the starting rotation, along with the rest of his fellow linemen who have been the target of criticism because of the Vols’ struggle to run the ball, went a long way to restoring the confidence he carried through a spotless first two games of the season.
He said he’s more “honed in,” especially during situations when he’s tired and forced to think on the fly.
Seemingly everyone around him has noticed the change.
“It was a little bit of a dip back,” coach Derek Dooley said. “He hasn’t performed like that in the first two weeks and certainly he didn’t go against D-linemen like that in the first two weeks.
“We’ll see if we learn from it and improve. We’ll have plenty of opportunity going forward in the same situations.”
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble