KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (school release) -- When Tennessee returns to practice at Haslam Field on Tuesday morning, sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray will be slinging the ball around the field for the first time since the week leading up to the Vols’ game against Georgia (Oct. 8).
Bray is recovering from a fractured right thumb he suffered late in the fourth quarter against the Bulldogs. It’s unknown whether he will be able to play Saturday against Vanderbilt.
“He has been cleared to go ahead and start practicing, which is right on schedule with what we expected,” head coach Derek Dooley said Monday at UT’s weekly media luncheon. “I would probably list him if I had to say a word as questionable. I really won’t know until we start practicing to see how he can take a snap, how accurately he can throw it.
‘He’s going to have a little learning curve coming back because he has been out of ball. What has it been? Five, six weeks, which is a little bit of time. We will see, we still have to get the other guys ready to play and we will just kind of take it day by day.”
As the Vols take it day by day, they’ll determine what role Bray will play in practice.
“It’s just a little premature for me to say he’s going to take all the one reps,” Dooley said. “We are just going to see what he can do in individual, see how we go, throw some seven on and then take it from there.”
While Bray tries to get comfortable throwing the ball again, the Tennessee offense is looking to do the same if he is at the helm.
“It would be kind of overwhelming because that is the guy we are used to playing with,” sophomore Rajion Neal said. “He is the guy that knows this offense, is comfortable with everybody and is kind of what everybody is used to. Having him back there would be a tad bit different. He would be more settled in, would know what to look for in the reads. This would be kind of his second time coming around as a sophomore so it would be great for us to have him back if that is (possible).”
Bray is 116-of-176 for 1,579 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
JOHNSON STEPPING UP AS A SENIOR
With all the talk about so many freshmen on this year’s Tennessee team, it is easy to let the story of another first-year starter slip by. After spending his first two seasons at Rocky Top as a fullback and last year as a backup linebacker, Austin Johnson has quietly become the leader of the Volunteer defense during his senior campaign.
“I think back to what did Austin look like four years ago,” Dooley said. “He was probably banging around as a backup fullback. I’m sure people were thinking, ‘What is he?’ Even last year, he didn’t do much for us and didn’t have any real role. It’s a guy who stays invested in the program, he keeps working, he has a tremendous level of commitment to being as good as he can be and then eventually he blossoms. He is a great example of that.”
The Hickory, N.C., native has been one of UT’s biggest playmakers from the middle linebacker position this season as he ranks second on the team with 65 tackles and leads the squad with three interceptions, including a snag deep in the secondary against Arkansas last week. He is the first Tennessee linebacker with three interceptions in a season since Raynoch Thompson in 1999.
“He’s made three really great plays,” Dooley said. “That was an incredible play he made the other night and we were lucky he made it because we busted the coverage. The safety was all the way over on the sideline when he needed to be covering the guy, but Austin wheeled back and made a great play.”
Johnson is one of 14 seniors that will run through the T for the final time before Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt. Joining him will be WR Anthony Anderson, WR Cory Eichholtz, DB Art Evans, DB C.J. Fleming, DS Nick Guess, DL Malik Jackson, LB Austin Johnson, DL Ben Martin, TB Tauren Poole, LB Shane Reveiz, PK/P Chip Rhome, QB Matt Simms, LB Jake Storey and LB Daryl Vereen.
“They’ve been through a lot,” Dooley said. “They’ve been through three coaches, probably four position coaches and five strength coaches and kind of stuck with it. I know this year isn’t going the way they had hoped, but it would be good to send them out of Neyland Stadium with a win. All these freshmen don’t understand how they are going to feel when they are a senior. I didn’t really realize how special it was until last year. It kind of caught me off guard when those guys were running through (the T) for the last time.
The experience of watching the seniors running through the T last season was one Dooley admits was more emotional than he had anticipated, but he plans on being more prepared his second time around.
“It’s hard to explain,” Dooley said. “Last year, I didn’t have much time with those guys. I didn’t know them very well. It was a little edgy when I got here and it was edgy early in the year with them. Despite all of that, I got choked up a little bit that last game just watching them. Seeing how emotional they got, it hit me how much they loved their experience here, as bad as it was as far as the record and what happened and all that. That’s when it really hits you how much college means to somebody playing college football. I wasn’t prepared for it, so I will be better prepared this time.”
PAST DOESN’T AFFECT PRESENT
Tennessee has won 27 of its past 28 meetings with Vanderbilt and owns a 72-27-5 record against the Commodores. Heading into Saturday, he Vols are looking at those figures the same way they view the previous 10 games of this season.
They’re in the past.
“It’s a part of it,” junior defensive lineman Willie Bohannon said of dealing with losses. “You have to bounce back from it no matter what. You can’t think of it as being hard. You just think of it as being another challenge that you have to defeat. That’s what we’re going to have to do this week. We’re going to have to bounce back. If we don’t, we’ll have another embarrassment.
“It’s still a rivalry game at the same time. All the things they’ve done in the past and all the things we’ve done in the past this season don’t really count. It’s about this game coming up.”
The previous 105 games against Vanderbilt won’t prepare the Vols for the 2011 Commodores. And they’re well aware of that.
“They’re a good team and I watched them all year in the hotel before our games,” senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. “They’re a good team and very capable of coming out and beating us when they play their best. We’re going to have to practice this week really hard. They’re really going to come and try to test us. We just have to practice hard this week, go out there Saturday and do everything right.”
Senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson
(On the Arkansas game)
“In that game, a lot of things went wrong. Coach Dooley just came in on Sunday and said he just felt like we didn’t go out there and do what we were supposed to do at all. We had no energy and he said we just had to throw away the film, move on and get ready for our next game.”
(On Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers)
“He’s a very accurate quarterback, he’s very decisive and he can make his reads. That O-Line gives him a lot of time with their scheme and stuff so he’s good when he has a lot of time. We just have to go out there, pass rush him and get hurry-ups.”
Junior defensive lineman Willie Bohannon
(On Vanderbilt’s record)
“It doesn’t surprise me because everybody has their day. The ball hasn’t been rolling for them just like it hasn’t been rolling for us. We can’t really downgrade them or say anything bad about them but that they’re working just like we are. They’re trying to get a win just like we are.”
(On Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers)
“I saw him a few times. He’s pretty mobile. I didn’t think that he was mobile until I saw one of their games. He’s not a slow quarterback at all.”
Freshman defensive back Brian Randolph
(On team’s mindset)
“We were a little down, but we weren’t negative. We are trying not to look back, just look ahead.”
(On pressure to win)
“We are just taking it one at a time. I don’t think it’s pressure. We are excited that we still have a chance to make it to a bowl game. We are just going to take it one game at a time.”
Senior linebacker Austin Johnson
(On running through the T for the last time)
“I did think about it a few weeks ago, one of the weeks I was a captain. I was just (thinking) that there aren’t many more times this is going to happen. It’s definitely sad to think about.”
(On heading into last two games needing to win both for a bowl bid)
“It’s not how I expected it or what I thought. Every year when you are training you look at the schedule and think about how we are going to beat these guys and we’ll beat them. I do that every year in my head. It’s not what I thought, but it’s kind of the hand we’ve been dealt. We just have to play this card. Our backs are against the wall and we have to win these last two games. Last year we had to win the last four and we did that. We are ready for the challenge. We talked to the guys yesterday and I think everybody is ready for it and we are ready for the test against Vanderbilt.”
(On the Vanderbilt game and needing to win it to become bowl eligible)
“It’s kind of like every year since I’ve been here, we’ve always been in the situation needing to win the last two games. Especially my freshman year when we went through a lot coming into Vandy week and they had started that season 5-0 or something like that and were all hyped up. It’s expected and the fans know it, we know it. We just have to beat them. They are a good team this year and they are going to be expecting to beat us. We just have to go in there with confidence and play our game.”
Sophomore wide receiver Rajion Neal
(On the offense)
“We are out there executing and trying, but some things just don’t go our way. We just have to take what the defense gives us. We have to take more shots and execute what we do a little bit better, but we can only go as far as how we execute and what the defense allows us to do really.”
(On what it takes to convert in the clutch)
“Playing hard and fast all the time. Just knowing that that guy can’t hold you and you are the best player out there. You just have that type of swagger and confidence about yourself to where you just can’t be denied almost.”
(On needing the win to become bowl eligible)
“This game can make or break everybody’s season. If this game is lost by either (team), bowl contention is pretty much out of the window. For most folks, that is their whole season. I know definitely with the history of this game, it’s going to be big just for us playing them and definitely because we need the game to become bowl eligible. (It adds) a little pressure, but I think it makes you play harder and makes this game mean more to you. I think the best will come out of everybody.”
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