Rarely does one have the opportunity to witness the beginnings of a star being born, especially in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon in Columbia, SC, but that's precisely what Tennessee football fans did on October 30, 2010.
In the third quarter Head Coach Derek Dooley had grown weary of the offense, led by junior quarterback Matt Simms. Simms had battled his way through the brutal stretch of the Tennessee schedule, suffering 24 sacks through eight games, while throwing eight touchdowns and five interceptions. The offense was inconsistent, to say the least, and the inability to finish drives and get points on the board had relegated the unit to dead last in the SEC in orange-zone scoring.
With the Vols trailing the South Carolina Gamecocks, 17-10, Coach Dooley made the most important gridiron decision of his young Tennessee coaching career.
Enter freshman quarterback, Tyler Bray.
Bray's first real action of the 2010 season got off to a polarizing start when South Carolina's Devon Taylor intercepted the young quarterback's first attempt and promptly returned it for a Gamecock's touchdown.
Unshaken, Bray led the Vols back into contention, tying the score at 24 early in the fourth quarter before South Carolina pulled away late, to secure the 38-24 victory.
Bray finished the day, completing 9-of-15 attempts for 159 yards, two touchdowns and the aforementioned interception.
Following the game, it seemed obvious that another important decision needed to be made to get the Big Orange offense back on track.
Two days later, Coach Dooley named Bray the starter for the Memphis game and as they say, the rest is history.
Ray-Bans, please, my personal brand of choice.
Bray's first career start for the Vols came on the road against the Memphis Tigers and what a start it was.
The true freshman rewrote the Tennessee record book, as his star exploded like a meteor shower, raining down on Memphis for 308 yards and five touchdowns to five different receivers, in the first half alone. Bray played very little in the second half blowout win and finished with 325 yards through the air. The remarkable debut earned Bray SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
Anybody tried out the new line by Oakley?
The following week Tennessee returned to their SEC schedule with a date in Knoxville with the Ole Miss Rebels. Surely this would be a better test of Bray's mettle, right? Not really. Three more touchdown passes, 323 passing yards and another blowout win later, Bray had discarded another page from the Volunteer's record book by becoming the first quarterback in the program's storied history to throw for 300-plus yards in each of his first two starts. Make that two SEC Freshman of the Week honors.
The quarterback wears Prada?
The Vols were beaming brightly with the freshman signal-caller behind center and needed wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky in their final two games to gain bowl eligibility. Bray delivered, combining for four more touchdowns and 586 passing yards in the two victories to even the Vol's record at 6-6. Make that three SEC Freshman of the Week honors, following the season finale at home against the Wildcats.
Let me try the Gargoyles.
The Vols would remain in state for Bray's fifth start, all within the borders of Tennessee, to take on the UNC Tar Heels in the Music City Bowl at Titans Stadium in Nashville. If not for the final 31 seconds of regulation, which allowed Carolina to tie the game and eventually win in double-overtime, Bray would've likely taken home the MVP award. In the end, the freshman threw for 312 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions against undoubtedly the toughest defense he faced all season.
How about Bolle'?
By year end, in just five starts and in a limited, early-season substitution role, Bray had thrown for 1,849 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions without the benefit of a productive running game that finished dead last in the SEC, managing only 116 yards per game. Offensively, to put it bluntly, Bray and his receiving corp had it all on their shoulders as the running game dropped off to just 96 yards per game in his five starts, nearly 80 yards below the conference average. But Bray and his talented receivers made up of Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers, and Luke Stocker kept shining.
Okay, I think I'll check out Serengeti.
In fact, a strong argument could be made that Bray may very well be the top returning, starting quarterback in the SEC for 2011. With the departure of seniors, Greg McElroy of Alabama and Jeremiah Masoli of Ole Miss along with Ryan Mallet and Cam Newton leaving early for the NFL, the only other legitimate candidates would be Stephen Garcia of South Carolina and Aaron Murray of Georgia.
Murray was great in 13 games for Georgia, throwing for 3,247 yards, 24 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions and benefited from an offensive line that only allowed 25 quarterback sacks. Murray was also aided by a running attack that averaged 148 rushing yards per game while his air-assault ripped opposing defenses for an average of 250 yards per contest.
The seasoned Garcia, in 14 games, led the Gamecock's to the SEC Championship Game while throwing for 3,303 yards, 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, behind an offensive line that allowed 30 sacks. South Carolina's running game, led by explosive, freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore, accounted for 156 yards per game. Garcia averaged 236 yards per game through the air.
In contrast, the 6'6" Kingsburg, CA native, in just five starts for the Volunteers ripped page after page from the Tennessee record books. Bray's numbers in just his five starts were truly amazing, throwing for 1,546 yards (an average of 309 yards-per-game), 16 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, including a Tennessee freshman-record stretch of 96 consecutive passes without an interception. He also bested the previous freshman passing yardage record, held by fellow Californian Casey Clausen. All in just five starts, not even half of a full season, with the conference's worst running game and an offensive line that dubiously and by far allowed the most sacks in the SEC. Neither did Bray have the play-making services of the conference's two most dominating receivers in Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina or A.J. Green of Georgia.
I'm starting to think about some old-school Foster-Grants, do they still make those?
Bray will be losing his top two receivers, as both Moore and Jones are seniors, along with tight end Luke Stocker. But don't get overly concerned, as the Vols appear to be in the process of rebuilding what was once known as Wide Receiver U, back in the days of Willie Gault and company.
Returning in 2011 as Bray's targets will be fellow-freshmen Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers, and Matt Milton, along with sophomore Zach Rogers. Both Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers were key contributors for the Tennessee offense this past season and with the departure of Moore and Jones, look for these two young stars to emerge bigger and brighter in the upcoming season.
Bray will also have at least one new top-notch target in the crowd next season with the addition of four-star wide receiver, DeAnthony Arnett, from Saginaw, MI. The Vols are also locked in a battle with Alabama and Georgia for the services of the nation's number two tight end and four-star prospect, Jay Rome, from Valdosta, GA. The addition of Rome could make the loss of Stocker a little more easier to deal with for the Tennessee program.
The much-maligned offensive line also received a shot in the arm this week with commitments coming from four-star offensive guard, Marcus Jackson, from Vero Beach, FL and Notre Dame offensive lineman, Alex Bullard (formerly a four-star prospect from Nashville) announced that he will be transferring, trading in his Irish green for Big Orange.
Does anyone remember the phone number for those blue-blockers that Bill Dance used to sell on TV?
With just under eight months until the kickoff of the 2011 season against Montana in Knoxville, Big Orange fans still have plenty of time to shop around for the coolest shades and the best deals available out there for fashionable eye wear, but you better get them, cause you are gonna need them.
Tyler Bray is just getting started on what promises to be a brilliant and bright career for the Volunteers.