The Quarterbacks: A Full Season, Please
Here is the last installment of our 2012 season preview, where we examine the quarterbacks. Hopefully for 2012, that starts and ends with junior Tyler Bray (#8), because it goes without saying that if Tennessee Vols football is to turn the corner in 2012, it is going to have to have a full season of a healthy Tyler Bray. It was one thing to lose Justin Hunter early last season, but the biggest season-killer was the injury to Bray.
Even with a significant injury, Bray ended up starting seven games and missing ‘only’ five games with a fractured right thumb suffered in the Georgia game. And the interesting part about that was 2011 was the second straight season that Bray did not feature against the best opposition. Thus, it is a reasonable argument to say – as distasteful as it might seem to some – that we really don’t know how good Tyler Bray really is. Or perhaps more directly, we don’t know if Bray is as good as we collectively seem to think he is.
The immense potential that has Tyler on many ‘watch lists’ for national awards has been seen only through performances against lesser competition: Memphis, Ole Miss, Vandy, Kentucky, Montana, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. He missed the guts of the 2010 season because Matt Simms was the starter. He missed the guts of the 2011 season due to injury. His performances against the only ‘big boys’ he has ever faced – Florida and Georgia in 2011 – have been mediocre. His performances against Vandy and Kentucky last season, although dreadful, have to be filtered with compassion because, after all, he was coming back from injury (and was reportedly quite ill during the humiliation in Lexington).
So the basis of the adulation we have poured onto the young Californian is his winning his first six regular season games as a starter. The first four of those were against the typically poor teams we find most every November, but it saved the 2010 season from potential disaster. The last two of those opened last season, featuring TD passes on his first two passing attempts (vs. Montana) – 47 yards to Da’Rick Rogers and 81 yards to Justin Hunter – and ending the season opener with a 70.8 percent completion stat. In the following game, Bray set a school record for completion percentage in a game (minimum 40 attempts) with 82.9 percent, completing 34-of-41 for a career-high 405 yards against Cincinnati. [NOTE: Tee Martin owns the record based on a minimum 10 throwing attempts with a 96% completion rate, 24-for-25 at South Carolina in 1998]
But his game against Florida in the Swamp was overall a disappointment (especially late in that game), with the effect of Justin Hunter’s early exit notwithstanding.
Bray has perhaps the strongest arm in the SEC if not the nation, and also perhaps the largest upside potential yet unfulfilled to go with it. For me, he has to lead the Vols to a win over a worthy opponent for his legacy to have words like ‘winner’ included. And even though Bray has spent a lot of off-season time visiting schools to help kids, his penchant for making bad decisions off the field has to improve for that legacy to include the word ‘leader’.
I am optimistic, but with a healthy dose of realism. Fingers are crossed, because Bray could be the key to saving yet another season, or even better.
Sophomore Justin Worley (#14) is the backup going into this year. He had his redshirt burned in the waning minutes of last season’s Alabama game (quite quizzical circumstances to say the least), and ended up starting the next three games, throwing for 604 yards on 48-of-87 with a TD and three INTs against South Carolina, Arkansas, and MTSU. But burning the redshirt gave the 2012 Vols a most capable backup to Bray in case the starter goes down because of injury or off-the-field issues. And spring practice season showed how Worley had made the most of his limited, but significant game experience.
Freshman Nathan Peterman (#12) is a different kind of QB than his bench partner Worley, who is in the pure-pocket-passer category. He is a bit of a bull in that Nathan has a stronger arm than Worley along with a capability to be a successful running quarterback. Peterman, as did Worley, impressed the coaching staff during a spring practice season that was unfortunately cut a bit short by injury. He continued to impress during the August pre-season camp. Peterman comes to Knoxville with impressive high school credentials: Rivals.com’s No. 10 QB in the nation based in part on throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 36 TDs as a senior (Fruit Cove, FL).
To round out the QB roster, there is sophomore Patrick Ashford (#13) who played with Carson-Newman his freshman season as their backup QB and holder on kicks. Also, freshman Joe Stocstill (#17) has a roster spot even though he did not play his senior season of high school (Lewisburg, TN) due to an ACL injury.