I have an unhealthy obsession with the aura around Tyler Bray. This feels weird to me for many reasons, not the least of which having to do with the fact that I've, well, graduated college, which by default makes me substantially older than him. The Tyler Bray that is on the field will never be as good as the Tyler Bray that is in my head, and that has nothing to do with actual Bray - it's just that virtual Bray is so much fun to think about.
So, pardon me while I introduce you to virtual Bray.
This is the kind of guy for whom Cincinnati - the offensive explosion that had us all giddy until Justin Hunter landed all weird next week (boy, if that isn't a microcosm of the last four years) - is the floor. This is the guy who can throw a football through the eye of a needle - or, failing that, converging defensive backs - into the arms of a streaking Hunter or Da'Rick Rogers or Cordarrelle Patterson - for six just for fun. The kind of guy who only takes a three-step drop before launching a 40-yard bomb because he was sick of Jim Chaney yelling at him in practice to get out of the center's way and Hunter isn't fast enough to catch up to a 60-yard bomb after a three-step drop, anyway.
His off-field exploits are positively Ovechkin-esque (there I go with the hockey metaphors again).
Okay, putting aside the off-field stuff, what we - okay, in this case when I say "we" I mean "the sane ones among us", because I'm clearly not counted in that after those previous two paragraphs - are hoping for isn't quite that lofty, as it were. What we're looking for looks like wins. Lots of them. Piled high and wide as far as the eye can see.
Wait, I was thinking of touchdowns. Again. Okay, so the wins won't be piled quite that high (can't go higher than 14), but we need something that shows progress. Real, tangible, "this team is going places" progress.
It's at this point I choose to liberally quote from something I wrote before, and elsewhere:
Still, that’s not say there aren’t holes in Bray’s game. His accuracy – especially in conference games and against quality opponents – suffers. Sure, his completion percentage last year was a robust 59.5%, but it helps when you avoid three of the best four defenses in the conference, let alone the country. It’s easy to write off his struggles against Florida, too. The game plan got all shot up when Hunter’s knee ligaments decided they were done with football, and it took the offense a few weeks to adjust. Bray’s completion percentage against Georgia wasn’t great, but the Bulldogs had an elite defense. Vanderbilt and Kentucky? Bray wasn’t healthy yet. See how easy this is?
And yet, there are numbers, and there is film, and he’s not the same guy against SEC defenses that he is when he’s shredding the Montanas and Buffalos and the Cincinnatis of the world. That’s not to write off those performances, mind you. They come in handy against those teams and are a principal reason why I’m not too concerned about the season opener against NC State. Still, there’s a need to be better against better defenses, against the Floridas and Georgias and South Carolinas, and, yes, the Alabamas of the world. That matters for Tennessee fans as much as it does for Bray.
Bray won’t go it alone. That’s why he has a healthy Justin Hunter, a returning and resurgent Da’Rick Rogers, an incoming JUCO beast in Cordarrelle Patterson, . . . and a host of guys in the wings. Those guys are talented, and their success is tied to Bray’s as much as Bray’s success is tied to them. We know what Hunter can do when healthy, and if Rogers is a #1 in #2 clothing, that’s even better. We don’t know what we’re getting in Patterson, but you know who gets to tell us that? Hint: he’s the guy with the goofy back tattoo.
I’d like to sit here and tell you this season doesn’t come down to Bray, but I’d be lying. In my head, at least, I’d be lying. On paper, I’m not: Whether or not the defense can successfully transition to a 3-4; how long that transition takes; how much of a distraction the Dooley-on-the-hot-seat talk has on the team; injuries; if the offensive line doesn’t gel in the running game again; special teams woes; plain ol’ bad luck (seriously, whoever moved the Indian burial ground to underneath Neyland, if you can please relocate it to somewhere else, anywhere else, it’d be much appreciated). Still, an ineffective Bray torpedoes all of that. None of the other things matter if Bray struggles. If he’s everything we hope he’s going to be, we’re going to be fine.
Bray is an elite talent (no, really, he is, stop rubbing your eyes - we're Tennessee, we still should know them when we see them) with legitimate pro potential. That pro potential isn't of the Ryan Tannehill variety - we've seen Bray succeed, when he's healthy and the rest of the team isn't falling around him. Cincinnati's don't grow on trees most years, but in 2012? Why not?
Quite frankly, they have to. If Bray's successful, the odds Tennessee's successful go way up (and, if Bray's the kind of kid who cares about this, so does his paycheck come the NFL Draft). It's not just talent, though; it's leadership. Bray is an upperclassman now, and since basically all we have on this team are juniors and below, well, that counts as leadership. So does the T on his helmet and the position he plays.
So, is Bray ready for that? Y'all know my position already.
The excerpt above comes from the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition ($19.99), but conveniently it's also in the Kindle version ($9.99) and the ebook (a downloadable PDF) for $7.99. The rest of my piece on Bray is in there, along with a whole host of other pieces (and yes, the SEC Monster Manual half y'all have referenced is in there, too).