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Bray pushed to improve

He’s stronger. He’s smarter. He’s quicker.

Tyler Bray

He says he’s bigger, but the jury’s still out on that issue.

Regardless, Tennessee’s Tyler Bray emerged as one of the nation’s best freshman quarterbacks last season, and he wants to live up to the immense hype that will surround him as a sophomore.

And he says he’s ready to be the face of UT’s offense going forward.

“The quarterback’s always got to be the leader,” the 6-foot-6 Californian said after Tuesday’s start of spring practice on Haslam Field. “I’m not more of a vocal leader. I just kind of try to lead on the field and in practice and stuff just by playing, but I’m trying to work on being more of a vocal leader for the team.”

How will that work if it’s not natural?

“You just try to put yourself in situations where you’ve got to do something you normally wouldn’t do, and you just practice and work on it,” Bray said.

Second-year UT coach Derek Dooley wants to push his strong-armed sophomore in several areas. That’s been his plan all along.

In Dooley’s mind, Bray should be better at everything as a sophomore. More experience, to the coach, means more expectations.

“Tyler is our starting quarterback,” Dooley said in Monday’s pre-spring press conference. “He obviously has to develop in so many areas — first off, to master the offense intellectually. I believe that the better he understands what we’re doing, the more we can do and the more confident he’ll become. But we’re going to try to push him a lot more, which may cause him to struggle a little bit. And the better you get at that position, the more you want to put on them because the more he can do, the more effective you can be on offense.

“You’d love to get to a point where you give him a lot of freedom out there to do things. But that’s not going to happen overnight, so he’s got a lot of work ahead of him.”

Dooley’s plan, in short, seems to be one that pushes Bray without wrecking his confidence.

“I think it’s an inch-by-inch process — I mean, we’re not going to throw so much on him he can’t go out there and think,” the coach said. “But generally, that’s never fazed him. If he doesn’t understand something, he doesn’t care. He’s just going to do something else. A lot of guys get really frustrated because they want to master what we know, and Tyler, if he doesn’t get it, he doesn’t really care, you know? Like, ‘Maybe I’ll get that tomorrow, but today I’m going to just throw it to that guy and it’s going to be a touchdown.’

“We’ll be the ones throwing our hat because he throws it to the wrong guy, and it’s a touchdown.”

Freelancing works to a certain extent — look at the high moments in Brett Favre’s career — but it can’t be all backyard football, all the time. Bray and his coaches know that.

That process took a slow step on the field Tuesday, when Bray failed to grasp a new protection scheme up front.

“I’m struggling with right now, but I’m going to go in today and tomorrow and just try to watch some more film and try to get a little bit more knowledge on it,” said Bray, who doesn’t look like someone who has cut his hair or shaved since UT’s gut-punching, Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina in December.

Bray and his teammates have many things in their favor. They have a big, young offensive line that should be significantly better after getting pushed around the field last season, and Freshman All-America center James Stone is now snapping right-handed — no, seriously, he snapped with his left hand last season. They have a tantalizingly talented pair of sophomore wide receivers in Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. They have tailback Tauren Poole, who rushed for 1,000 yards last year, back for his senior season.

Perhaps as importantly as anything, the Vols also have their entire offensive coaching staff back from last season.

“It’s nice,” Bray said. “You have the same system, you don’t have to worry about changing much in the playbook, so you just come in and get going right away.”

But don’t be deceived. There are still holes. Depth is potentially a problem in several areas, and Denarius Moore, Gerald Jones and Luke Stocker — three savvy pass-catchers who always knew where to be on the field — are preparing for the NFL Draft.

“We actually talked about that after the bowl game,” Bray said. “Me and Da’Rick sat in my room for a little bit and talked about what we needed to do to get Tennessee back to where it needs to be.”

Still, expectations are for Tennessee to take a step forward this season. And many of those expectations are there because Bray showed so much promise this season.

But he has to take that step forward, or his team probably won’t. And he knows that. He’s known it since walking off the field in tears after throwing a crucial interception in the second overtime of UT’s bowl loss.

That sour ending to a sterling freshman season has mostly left Bray’s mind, but completely erasing it would also erase the reminders that he has to improve this season.

“I was a little hurt for a couple of days,” Bray said with his typically quiet tone. “I talked to Dooley after the game, and just talked about getting over it and working on moving on to the next day and just getting ready for next season.”

What started that night hasn’t stopped.

And that’s why Dooley is about to start pushing harder.

“There’s a lot of freshmen that go out there and flash, and everybody gets excited about, and they never pan out to (be) anything,” Dooley said. “And then there’s a lot of freshmen that go out there and have a great freshman year, and they have a terrible sophomore year because they think they’re going to be pretty good. History really is working against us a little bit, and it’s our job to make sure that neither of those scenarios happen.”

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