Tennessee was piddling its way through a 2-5 season and was in the midst of its fourth straight loss at South Carolina when Coach Derek Dooley decided to pull the trigger and get the Tyler Bray era under way.
Since then, the Tennessee offense has looked like the Tennessee offense is supposed to look, with a tall, lanky quarterback (think Peyton Manning, Erik Ainge) throwing to a bevy of talented receivers (think Donte Stallworth, Peerless Price, Robert Meachem).
Bray, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound true freshman, took over for Matt Simms in the third quarter against the Gamecocks and threw two touchdown passes to erase a 14-point deficit. South Carolina hung on to win the game 38-24, but Dooley then made Bray the starter against Memphis.
Tennessee is 3-0 and is averaging 42 points a game with Bray as the starter as the Volunteers prepare for a visit from the University of Kentucky on Saturday.
Bray has thrown for 880 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions during that period.
Tennessee senior linebacker Nick Reveiz said he noticed Bray's intangibles not long after Bray enrolled for the spring semester and took part in bowl practices.
"I remember thinking this guy's got a lot of potential, but potential doesn't mean anything," Reveiz said. "Tyler worked hard and developed his skills, listened to the coaches, worked hard and maximized his potential. He's really impressed me with his attitude. It's easy to get emotional, after a bad play and get down. I was like that as a freshman. But he hasn't done that. He can deal with success and adversity."
Bray showed the first chinks in his armor in last week's 24-10 win at Vanderbilt, as he had the first two-interception game of his career.
"This is part of his growth as a quarterback, learning that you're not going to go out there and rip them for 50 points every week," Dooley said. "He still has a long way to go as it relates to preparation, as it relates to understanding defenses and learning defensive structures and getting offenses into a good play. He's still, to me, a true freshman playing quarterback. But he's also still making a lot of good plays for us. That's what we've hung our hat on."
UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said his unit will have to mix things up to keep Bray from getting in a comfort zone.
"You don't want him back there comfortable being able to drink a cup of coffee before he throws the ball," Brown said. "You always try to get him not to be able to throw in rhythm. You try and mix coverages and do some unpredictable things and pressure him."
But Brown said UT's receivers are as much of a concern as Bray. UT has five pass-catchers who can hurt teams. There's versatile senior Gerald Jones, who has a team-high 40 catches. Then there's the reliable senior Denarius Moore, who leads the team with eight TD receptions.
A pair of promising true freshmen have also contributed — Justin Hunter (27.1 yards per reception, six touchdowns) and Da'Rick Rogers. The Volunteers also have one of the league's best tight ends in Madison Southern product Luke Stocker.
"The wide receivers are playing well," Brown said. "They're getting open and catching the ball, and that's helping his confidence because he feels he can throw it up there and they'll go make a play."
But it's Bray who has ultimately changed the outlook in Knoxville, both for 2010 and the future.
"I got to know Tyler during the recruiting process, and he's a great kid," said UT true freshman offensive lineman Zach Fulton. "I think he really wanted the job awhile ago, and then he started putting everything together and getting everything right. He's getting the ball out quicker, he's making his reads and progressions, and he can get us out of trouble."
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