KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (school release) --- Tennessee sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray returned to practice Tuesday morning at Haslam Field after recovering from a broken thumb suffered against Georgia on Oct. 8.
But it wasn't the same Bray that recorded 1,579 passing yards and 14 touchdowns through the first five weeks of the season.
"He worked his way back," head coach Derek Dooley said. "He didn't take all the reps. He's not even close to what he was before he got injured, not even close. I would still say the same thing I said in the press conference, which is questionable."
Regardless of whether Bray can play Saturday against Vanderbilt or not, his effectiveness also remains questionable.
"He has a broken thumb, so you can't grip the ball and throw it the way you do when you don't have a broken thumb," Dooley said. "It's going to take some time. It's like everything around here. We want immediate fixes. His thumb is not fixed. You don't just put magic serum on it and he can go throw like he did five weeks ago. It will come. I don't know if it will be this week. I know he won't be as good as he was this week. I know that for a fact, if he plays at all. We'll see."
Bray's return, at the very least, has given the Vols an extra boost of energy in practice.
"We're excited to get him back out there," senior tailback Tauren Poole said. "I just hope he can do it in a game. That's all we want is to see him produce in the game. It's definitely a different pace in games than in practice. He had a smile on his face, he seemed happy. We're excited about him. We need him. Hopefully he can play, and hopefully he can play well."
While Bray still has to get readjust to gripping and throwing the ball, his command hasn't been altered.
"It's always good to have a player like that come back," sophomore center Alex Bullard said. "He looked pretty good throwing the ball but he just has to get back into it because he has been gone for several weeks now. He was confident and took charge. It was like having him the way we did at the beginning of the season. Of course he might be a little rusty, but he is a competitor. Once he gets back into it he will be fine."
For Bray, it's more about one `P' word than another.
"I don't think it's about protection," Dooley said. "I think it's more about production. Do I think he can move us down the field and score touchdowns? If I don't, he's not going to play. If I do, then we'll give it a shot. If he's struggling out there, then we'll pull him out.
"He's been cleared by the doctors. It doesn't mean there's not a risk .There's always a risk. The issue is can you execute the pass plays? Can you deliver the ball better than the other two guys we have?"
NASHVILLE NATIVES LOOKING FORWARD TO MATCHUP
In-state rivalry games tend to take on a little bit more personal meaning and this Saturday's matchup between Tennessee and Vanderbilt is no different, especially with the added bowl game implications involved.
For the Commodores (5-5), the contest represents an opportunity to become bowl eligible for just the second time in the last 29 years and the fifth time in school history. Meanwhile, the game is a must-win for the Vols who must beat both Vanderbilt and Kentucky for the opportunity to play in a bowl game. UT is also looking to continue its series domination over Vanderbilt, having beaten them more times (74) than all but one other team in program history. One of 11 current players on the Tennessee roster who hail from the greater Nashville area, junior fullback Ben Bartholomew prepped at Montgomery Bell Academy with three current VU players: Reggie Ford, Wesley Johnson and Fitz Lassing. After practice on Tuesday he was quick to point out the added significance this game has for him.
"It means a lot to me and being from Nashville just makes it even more important," Bartholomew said. "Knowing some of the people in from the program and growing up around that program makes it a really important game to me so I am taking it really seriously."
A product of Brentwood Academy, just south of Nashville, sophomore center Alex Bullard is aware of the series' one-sided history, but knows that only provides Vanderbilt with more determination as it heads into Neyland Stadium on Saturday, something the Vols will have to counter.
"You just have to go out there, play with a chip on your shoulder and get after it," Bullard said. "The biggest thing with a big rivalry like this is that the records go out the window and it's about who gets after the other team. We're Tennessee. We beat Vanderbilt, that's what we do. So that's what we are going to try to accomplish this year."
MARCUS MAKES HIS MARK
Freshman Marcus Jackson has settled into his role as the Vols' starting left guard and continues to gain confidence. The Vero Beach, Fla., native drew his first start against #14 South Carolina on Oct. 29 after seeing limited time as a back-up lineman and special teams contributor.
Jackson came to UT last winter and enrolled early in order to practice last spring. That move has paid off in terms of his experience and knowledge of the offense.
"I have learned a lot," Jackson said. "It's a game of inches, first step can make a difference, pad level. It was a struggle at first, but the guys have helped me out. Experience helps, but it's really all technique and learning the defenses and knowing what (the opponents) are going to do."
Jackson moved into the starting line-up for James Stone, who began the year as the Vol starting center before moving to left guard. Despite taking his place, Jackson says Stone has been supportive.
"It's been a great opportunity," Jackson said. "I have been practicing hard, trying to get better and trying to learn from other guys who played before me. James has helped me out, he's been real good and everything is working out."
Dooley has seen some progress out of Jackson, but knows with a young offensive line there will be growing pains.
"He's played a lot better last week than he played the first couple," Dooley said. "He looked like a true freshman out there. He shows some signs that get you encouraged, and then makes some bad mistakes. We have a new center who's new at center so he has to make some calls. You have Marcus next to him and then you have Dallas (Thomas)."
Jackson is one of the Vols strongest players, even as a freshman, and has continued to gain in strength. He had a team-best 60-pound turnaround - meaning he lost 30 pounds of fat and gained 30 pounds of muscle working under head strength coach Ron McKeefery after a good base from his high school career.
"I wasn't really that strong until 10th grade," said Jackson, who says he now weighs 315. "My stepdad got me on a weight program and I just worked out every day. Coach McKeefery knows what he is doing, just have to listen to him and keep on working it."
One of the keys has been running.
"I ran so much, I'm still running now," Jackson said. "I run about four miles every day on the treadmill."