Vols' success depends on Bray's arm
Like any good salesman, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley understands the value of simplicity and repetition in his message. That's why he has used a variation of "We are working on the run," or "We have to run the ball better," in almost every public appearance this spring.
The scrimmage the Vols held late last week was no exception. His starters weren't in the showers yet when Dooley said, "Like most scrimmages, some good things and some things we need to work on. I felt like we really showed a lot of improvement running the ball and that's been our emphasis. The line was coming off the ball and we generated a lot of run yards."
Rushing the ball will, indeed, be important for Dooley in the fall, and he is right to work on it during the spring when only the most hardcore fans are paying attention. During the scrimmage, a cadre of runners including Rajion Neal, Devrin Young, and Marlin Lane gained a total of 250 yards on 52 carries.
"The guys that showed some explosive plays, Devrin and Rajion, did a really nice job," Dooley said. "I think Devrin has proved he can get out there and generate some explosion. Rajion also showed some good promise."
That's nice, sort of like the vacuum cleaner salesman complimenting your window treatments. But Dooley knows, and we know, and Dooley knows that we know, that the key to Tennessee's success this year will be the arm of Tyler Bray and the hands of the men he will throw to numerous times every game.
Before breaking his hand last year, Bray was the most productive quarterback in the SEC with a quick release and pinpoint accuracy that had Volunteer fans swooning.
Now he has the most productive returning receiver in the conference in Da'Rick Roger, along with Justin Hunter (who is sitting out the spring recovering from ACL surgery), Zach Rogers and Vincent Dallas.
And while Dooley will no doubt continue to talk about the run game throughout the rest of spring practice, his real concern is getting the receiving corps in shape for the fall and teaching Bray to make smart, timely decisions.
That was evident this week when the emphasis in Knoxville was on check-downs, running through the receiver options in an orderly fashion and finding the open man.
"It's a point of emphasis," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "I think when you have guys that can run like Rajion, trying to get him the ball any way you possibly can is a benefit to our offense. Also, check-downs demonstrate a quarterback's ability to work through a progression on a play."
One of the highlights of the scrimmage was a check-down to Young that went for 35 yards, but Chaney wants to see more.
"It means he's moving from one to two to three," the coach said. "If we're doing that, usually you're seeing a lot of patience and maturity out of your quarterback. I hope to see more of that as spring goes on.
Dooley wants to see more of it as well, and he expects a lot more out of the receivers.
"We're just not polished right now," Dooley said of the passing game. "Of course it hurts not having Justin (Hunter) out there and having some new guys, but we're just not where we need to be."
"His decisions aren't bad, but he was off-target with the football," Chaney said of the quarterback. "I think he continues to develop. He's worked on some little fundamental things this week that we needed to get cleaned up."
Even sitting out most of last season, Bray enters his third year as Tennessee's seventh all-time passer with 35 touchdowns and 3,832 passing yards. He will need another extraordinary passing year if the Vols hope to contend in the East.
But even the receivers aren't talking about the passing game. They, too, have gotten the message about the message. When asked about Bray and his fellow receivers, Da'Rick Rogers deflected like a pro.
"It's all blocking for me," the rising junior said. "That's just the work and the unselfishness you have to have to have a good run game."
To anyone who believes that the run game is tops on Rogers' mind, I have a vacuum cleaner to sell you.