Monday, August 29, 2011

UT: Tyler Bray in the saddle

Tyler Bray remembers the last pass he threw in a real game very well.

“I can pretty much tell you the whole play,” the University of Tennessee quarterback said of his game-sealing interception against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl last December.

“It’s play-action pass. I have [fullback Channing] Fugate out in the flat. [Receivers] Gerald [Jones] and [Denarius Moore] are coming on the backside. And I threw it right to No. 52.

“I try to forget and move on, but that game and that play is hard to forget.”

As hard as that particular play was for Bray to forget, it’s probably harder for anybody to forget what he did in getting the Vols to that game. As a freshman, Bray entered UT’s game at South Carolina in the third quarter last October and promptly tossed a pass right to Devin Taylor for the easiest touchdown of the Gamecocks defensive end’s career.

Bray bounced back with two scoring throws to keep the Vols in the South Carolina game, and he flourished from there, feasting on the easier part of the Vols’ schedule by throwing 16 touchdown passes in five games.

His physical gifts are obvious, but the story with Bray over the course of spring practice, summer workouts and preseason camp in August has always been about the mental part of his game. Improving his consistency, maturity and leadership skills and investment to reaching his potential are atop his to-do list.

“He’s asking a lot better questions,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “I think he’s had a good summer in throwing the football and trying to learn as a quarterback.” “You earn the respect to be a leader, to me, based on your level of commitment to the program,” coach Derek Dooley said. “People have a hard time respecting somebody if they don’t see them committed to doing everything they can to help us win. I think he’s proving that to our team. It’s a work in progress.”

That progress hit a snag in the Vols’ first August scrimmage, when Bray struggled with the tempo and command of the offense. He bounced back with a better second scrimmage, but his completion rate (45 percent) in UT’s two evaluation scrimmages was troubling.

UT’s coaches have put a lot on Bray throughout the entire offseason, and Dooley has noted that the staff has to help Bray by not putting too much on the quarterback and negatively affecting his ability to make big plays. “We’re starting to get an understanding of when we’re pushing too much because we don’t want to get him uncomfortable,” Dooley said. “I wish Tyler would get a little more consistent in his approach. That comes with maturity.”

The consistency and maturity the Vols are hoping for from their quarterback can come only with time and experience. Bray won’t be a secret to opposing defensive coordinators anymore, and stout defenses at Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Arkansas await.

First, however, Bray would probably just prefer to have a different last pass to remember.

“He knows where we have to be as an offense,” senior tailback Tauren Poole said. “He knows that we need him to be on top of his game to be a good offense. We’re definitely making strides, and him being a great leader like he is definitely has to come along. He’s only a sophomore [and] still a young one, but we need him to step up.”

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tennessee Volunteers Football: Final Predictions for the 2011 Season

Tennessee Volunteers will go 8-4 in the 2011 regular season.

I'm not one of those guys who thinks the Vols will make the SEC Championship each year, either. I call it like I see it. For instance,the Titans will not win more than five games this year.

The team is young and thin at a few positions, but you simply can't look past how tremendous this offense will be. Tennessee could win games just getting Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter connected.

Just imagine what they'll do with Tauren Poole, Da'Rick Rogers and that great offensive line.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Prentiss Waggner lays claim to starting position at UT

Amid the competition for the University of Tennessee's two cornerbacks spots, Prentiss Waggner has risen somewhat quietly to the top. The junior ball-hawk has enough versatility that the Volunteers could play him at any of its three secondary positions, but Waggner has found a spot.

"I know the playbook in and out," Waggner said after Saturday afternoon's scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. "I know the linebackers and D-ends, basically the whole defense. I'm comfortable wherever they put me."

With the Vols' preseason camp drawing to a close on Wednesday, Waggner has found a home at one cornerback, with junior Marsalis Teague and true freshman Justin Coleman fighting it out for the other spot. Junior college transfer Izauea Lanier also figures to fit into the rotation as the Vols plan to play a handful of defensive backs and use their five-defensive back nickel package a majority of the time.

Each of UT's cornerbacks has a unique attribute that makes them different. Teague was the Vols' best player there last year despite battling a nagging turf toe injury most of the latter half of the season, Coleman's physicality and competitiveness have impressed the Vols' coaches since his arrival on campus in January and the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Lanier has the staff's ideal size for the position.

Waggner, though, has the experience, instincts and playmaking ability -- he took three interceptions back for touchdowns last season -- to go along with his production this month.

"He's pretty settled at corner right now," coach Derek Dooley said. "I think he's been our most consistent corner. He's still got that ability to go to safety if something happens or just depending on who we play. Prentiss has been playing the best, most consistent out there."

The Vols have liked Coleman since the four-star recruit out of Brunswick, Ga., showed up to a camp last summer and battled receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who would eventually join him at UT, in one-on-one drills.

"They went every time, DeAnthony would win three and Justin would win one, but I mean they went like 30 times in a row," secondary coach and recruiting coordinator Terry Joseph recalled last week. "Justin Coleman not one time said, 'I'm tired, give me some water.' He just said, 'Let's go, line up again, line up again.'

"We knew his competitive character, and that's what really was the deal-closer for us, was that this guy, he's one of our guys. That's made us take him and offer him [a scholarship] and get him. Obviously he's proven so far that we were right."

The 5-10, 183-pound freshman was a surprise during spring practice, and he's brought the competitive nature he showed at the camp as a high school senior with him to UT.

"That's the No. 1 thing I like about the guy," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said last week. "He is extremely competitive, and if he gets beat, he lines right back up and wants to play again. Playing corner, that's the No. 1 thing. That's huge, so he's continued to show that he's a willing tackler, he's a physical guy, he can run and I expect Justin to get better really fast.

"We're going to push him, and he knows that we're holding him high expectations, but that's the way it's got to be for him."

That may not translate into Coleman starting ahead of Teague, who's proven his ability, and Lanier, who continues to progress after his late start in the race in terms of experience and comfort with UT's defense. As Teague put it, the corner's focus is on individual improvement rather than the competition from their teammates.

"We're not really worried about the depth chart," he said. "We just kind of go in when the coach calls us. There's some days where there's a different person in there. We're not really worried about that, we're just focusing on getting better every day."

Dooley said after two practices last week he was looking for more from his cornerbacks, and later in the week he gave his preferences for the position.

"You've certainly got to have a level of size and speed to hold up, you've got to have some instincts, and then you've got to have a little playmaking ability, meaning if the ball's in the air and you're there, you've got to make the play," he said. "You're going to get beat some. They're going to catch some balls, but you've got to have a little playmaking ability."

Which is probably why Waggner sits atop the race less than two weeks before UT's season opener.

"I'm still out there floating around, from corner to nickel to safety," he said. "I'm just out there having fun."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Vols' defense starting to show development

Tennessee's defensive players gathered in the film room before Saturday's scrimmage to watch a highlight reel of all the unit's big plays of previous years.

When they walked off the field at Neyland Stadium, they left with the assurance that they at least weren't on the wrong end of any plays that would motivate the offense in the future.

Outside of a deep catch by freshman DeAnthony Arnett that was called back for offensive pass interference, the Vols' secondary largely prevented Tyler Bray and the rest of UT's passing game from finding much success with the deep ball Saturday. Freshman Tom Smith had the game's longest run, a 22-yarder, but he didn't find the end zone.

It was a performance that fell short of matching Tuesday's lock-down effort, but was one that coach Derek Dooley said would allow him to enter the film room today with an optimistic vibe.

"The offense made a few plays and we missed a few fits here and there," junior Prentiss Waggner said. "When it comes down to it, coaches always talk about bend but don't break when we get in the end zone and just force field goals. I think we did that today."

The defense surrendered just two touchdowns — a 4-yard catch by Da'Rick Rogers and an 18-yard grab by Matt Milton — while allowing five field goals. The unit, though, was on the field for long periods of time, allowing drives of nine plays, two of eight plays and one of seven plays.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tauren Poole mocks Tyler Bray's "little bitty arm."

Is there a personality problem at Tennessee? Or is there just a senior whose mouth is moving faster than his brain? Vols' senior tailback Tauren Poole gave the Chattanooga Times-Free Press one doozy of a quote regarding his team's star quarterback.

"We definitely need the running game to win games," senior tailback Tauren Poole said. "We can't rely only on Tyler's little bitty arm to throw the ball every single play, even though he's talented enough. We're going to need to run the football."

"Tiny little arm?" that "tiny little arm" has done more than enough to give Tennessee fans hope that the dog days on Rocky Top are over there. Meanwhile, Poole's stats from last year are a little more up and down.

"Though the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Poole was one of just six players in the league to break the 1,000-yard mark and had solid games against Oregon (162 yards), LSU (109) and Alabama (117), he had his struggles. He rushed for a combined 96 yards in losses to Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina."

It sounds like Poole is going to definitely run more than his mouth this season.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Tennessee Vols Ready for Dooley’s Second Season

Our countdown heads to Rocky Top, where Tennessee will begin the second season of the Derek Dooley era. The Vols won their last four regular-season games after a slow start. Can they build on that in 2011?

2010 Record: 6-7

2010 Skinny: The Vols started the season at 2-6, including a non-conference loss to Oregon and their first six SEC games. They also narrowly avoided a 1-7 start by beating UAB in double overtime. But November was a different story for Tennessee, which won all four of its games in the regular season’s final month. Yes, it beat up on lowly in-state rivals Memphis and Vanderbilt, as well as struggling Ole Miss and Kentucky, but the Vols were sparked by a quarterback change. Matt Simms was replaced by Tyler Bray, and the improvement was noticeable. The season ended with a crushing double-overtime loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.

Returning Starters: 13

Coach: Derek Dooley (second season, 6-7)

Key Players: DT Malik Jackson, CB Prentiss Waggner, RB Tauren Poole

2011 Schedule:

Sept. 3 vs. Montana
Sept. 10 vs. Cincinnati
Sept. 17 @ Florida
Oct. 1 vs. Buffalo
Oct. 8 vs. Georgia
Oct. 15 vs. LSU
Oct. 22 @ Alabama
Oct. 29 vs. South Carolina
Nov. 5 vs. Middle Tennessee
Nov. 12 @ Arkansas
Nov. 19 vs. Vanderbilt
Nov. 26 @ Kentucky

Anthony’s Take: Bray returns for his sophomore season, which should see some fine development after he took over for Simms as a freshman. The Vols also return Poole, a 1,000-yard rusher. The offense will be fine. LB Nick Reivez, a team leader, is gone, and the team already finished 10th in SEC in total defense. As always, the Vols’ SEC slate will be tough. And this year, they will make trips to Florida, Alabama and Arkansas. Oof. I know that logic dictates this team’s bump up to eight wins in Dooley’s second year, but something tells me it’s going to be the status quo in Knoxville.

Jim’s Take: The offense returns a lot of talent at the skill positions and getting safety Janzen Jackson back after he left school for awhile is huge. This is a talented team. You can’t really blame Tennessee for that cakewalk nonconference schedule when you have a Murderer’s Row of an SEC slate. The Vols will likely be underdogs in all but two SEC contests. But with four easy nonconference games and contests against Kentucky and Vanderbilt to end the season, UT only needs one upset to reach seven regular season wins. I see them doing that and winning a bowl game to show progress in year two.

Getting to the Game

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