published Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Tennessee Vols' Tyler Bray stays cool despite hot start

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray (8).
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray (8).
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- For Tyler Bray, it's simply another football game.

Ask Tennessee's quarterback if a win against Florida in the national spotlight Saturday night will validate him as an elite quarterback, or mention his place in any discussions about the best quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference or the country, and he'll coolly shrug it off.

"I'm just worried about us being the best team in the SEC," he said after the Volunteers finished practice Tuesday morning. "I couldn't care less. Our team's doing good right now, so [I] can't complain."

It's not that the 6-foot-6 junior is indifferent about his own performance or anyone's perception of him.

"Tyler's just a real laid-back guy," receiver Justin Hunter said. "He doesn't pay attention to all that. He's just into the team. He doesn't really like all the glamour and stuff."

Beat the 18th-ranked Gators with ESPN in town, though, and Bray will be in tossed even further into that glamour. He's off to a sizzling start this season. In the 23rd-ranked Vols' two wins, Bray is 45-of-61 passing for 643 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.

Bray has had impressive numbers before, but he missed the saltiest of SEC defenses during his first two seasons at quarterback. He's started only seven games against league foes in two years, and his four wins have come against Vanderbilt twice, Ole Miss and Kentucky. Bray wasn't named the starter until after the toughest part of the Vols' schedule in 2010, and a broken thumb sidelined him for the meat of 2011's slate.

Saturday will be only the second time Bray has started against a ranked team. The first was last year's loss at Florida, when Hunter's injury sent Tennessee into a funk and a 33-23 loss.

Bray was 26-of-48 passing for 288 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions that afternoon, but he showed some toughness in getting up again and again as the Gators battered him all game long.

Now Bray's receivers are touting him as the nation's top quarterback, but he says they're "sucking up trying to get more passes."

"He's got 10 games to prove that," coach Derek Dooley said. "You can't prove it in two games. I've said it all along -- it's a body of work over time -- and he knows that. That question will be answered at the end of the season.

"I wouldn't trade him. There's going to be some games where he struggles; every quarterback goes through it. What I'm interested [in] is when he hits that little piece, how does he handle that?"

Probably with his usual even-keeled approach.

"He's himself every day," receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said. "Day in and day out. We think he's the best quarterback."

The Vols have noticed a change, though. Talk of his off-the-field maturity took a hit following two summer incidents, but he's become more vocal during practice and taken full command of the up-tempo no-huddle attack through two games. His confidence has rubbed off on the offense and helped his supporting cast to play better.

"He's a very humble guy, and he comes out here ready to work every day," receiver Zach Rogers said. "He's becoming more of a veteran every day, and you can see it out there, leading these guys. That's what we need from him."

Even with an unchanged approach, Bray said beating Florida would be "huge" in getting the program "back to how Tennessee used to be." It'd be big also for Bray, who could finally add a win against a quality SEC defense to his physical talents and impressive stat lines. Just don't expect him to alter his approach or change his attitude.

"He's going to try to work harder than everybody else on the field," Hunter said. "We go off him. If he's working hard, then we're all working hard.

"He just wants to have a big game every game. He's not going to pick out individual games like that. That can mess up somebody, so he's just going into every game trying to work hard and trying to play his best game."

Playing his best game Saturday night would carry more weight than any other of Bray's standout performances.

"He's ready to go beat these guys," Rogers said. "He's a proven quarterback right now, and he needs a big signature win like this. We're doing to do everything to help him. It's not just on him, and he knows that."

He probably knows, too, that it's not just another football game.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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