To the surprise of almost no one, there's a report from Bruce Feldman tonight that Tyler Bray will leave the Vols and head to the NFL Draft. Bray is projected anywhere from the first to third round, depending on who you listen to and which mock draft you dabble in. And Bray's decision is likely impacted by the departure of Justin Hunter and the expected departure of Cordarrelle Patterson, as well as the graduation of Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera, leaving the Vols without their top four pass catchers from last season.
Given that, I'm not sure what more Bray would've done in a year with Butch Jones and his system. Because we were 5-7 this year and because no one likes Derek Dooley anymore, it's easy to just optimistically assume that "he just needs one more year, then he'll really shine!"
What we really mean when we say that is, "Maybe he'll win a meaningful game!" Because there's nothing non-shiny about Bray's numbers this season: 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns, both the best anyone not named Peyton Manning has ever done at the University of Tennessee. Along the way he got Manning's single game record with 530 yards against Troy. And while he made a lot of hay against bad teams, he was also spectacular to the very end at South Carolina (27 of 43 for 368 and 4 TDs).
Here's the real question that we don't fully know how to answer: How much of Tennessee's o-fer in meaningful games the last three years falls at the feet of Bray?
The Georgia game this season was a microcosm of much of his career: incredible numbers and some truly incredible throws, giving the Vols a chance to win a game against a great team...but that win ultimately never materialized. Sometimes it didn't because of a fumble (Mississippi State) or a dropped bomb (Florida). Sometimes it didn't because the head coach chose not to go for it at the end of regulation (Missouri). And sometimes Bray himself was to blame, as was the case at Georgia. And not all of those are great teams, but the outcome seemed to always end up the same. And obviously, what else was always the same was the defense requiring a Manningesque effort from our signal caller for victory to even become an option.
Bray went from savior to injured to maligned; everything between the Kentucky loss and the beer bottle throwing helped turn some UT fans against him, and they never came back because Bray never got the big win. Again, how much of that is his fault? Who knows.
I hope Butch Jones makes us successful before Bray becomes successful in the NFL, not because I dislike Bray (I really don't) but because I don't want to have to deal with the potential reality of Bray, Hunter, and Patterson lighting it up on Sundays while UT still struggles on Saturdays. Because I truly think we're going to look back sooner rather than later, realize we had a once-in-a-generation combination on offense this season, and wonder how in the world we only won five games. I hope that happens for Bray, Hunter, and Patterson in a few years. And by the time it does, I hope the Vols have also returned to glory so we can celebrate it instead of lamenting it.
If he's gone, he leaves with pieces of the record book and pieces of unrealized potential. He'll go to the combine where he'll set the building on fire with his arm and his ability to make every throw. He'll face the question about his inability to win big games, but he'll also know that Ryan Tannehill, Jake Locker and the like have all been drafted and have started recently despite not scoring a bunch of huge wins for their school in their time in college.
I don't know what he'll do in the pros, but I know he's got a better chance to succeed there than any quarterback from Knoxville since Manning. Maybe he'll make it, maybe he won't. As a guy who only started half of his freshman and half of his sophomore season, then played with the worst defense in school history as a junior, I feel like there's a lot we just didn't get to learn about him and the losses and off-the-field stuff helped us make up our minds.
Without him the Vols will turn to Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman, who Butch Jones recruited at Cincinnati. The passing game will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. I hope Bray finds success and we get it fixed very soon. But with both and with Bray as always, the end result remains anyone's guess.
How will you remember Tyler Bray?