KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/SUBMITTED) -- While Tyler Bray was sidelined for five weeks with a broken thumb, the Tennessee sophomore quarterback used that time gain more experience in the film room while he was limited from physically throwing the football.
Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said Bray has made strides understanding how to guide the offense better. Bray worked extensively with head coach Derek Dooley, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and Hinshaw on getting inside opponent’s strategies.
“We did a good job over the last five weeks working on defensive schemes,” said Hinshaw. “Coach Dooley would take him, Coach Chaney would also, I would (take him) and we worked on a lot of other things besides just the gameplan that week and he got better in that area and he’s got to continue to get better.”
The time away from throwing the ball, has given Bray time to reflect and understand that he won’t be able to return and throw the ball as he was prior to the injury.
“Tyler’s a guy that has good poise about him, he understands the situation and frustration is something you have to work through,” Hinshaw said of Bray, who averaged 316 yards in his five starts prior to the injury vs. Georgia. “You have to understand the situation you are going through. But still understand decision making has to be there. It doesn’t mean that you are allowed to throw interceptions or do wrong things with the ball. It just means you have to understand some balls are going to get away from you and you have to learn to function with that injured hand.”
Although his dependence on playing Saturday rests with his hand, his mind is exactly where it needs to be.
“He’s come out with a lot of confidence, understanding the defense, he understands what’s going on,” Hinshaw said. “He’s very focused on what he needs to do this week.”
The Tennessee coaching staff saw something special in freshman linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt – enough to proclaim them starters before the season even started.
With just two games remaining, the rookie duo continues to hit opponents, not the freshman wall.
“The biggest step as a group, I think they have done a good job of getting a basic understanding and continuing to be productive and not allowing the grind of the season to overwhelm them,” linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said. “I don’t think they have hit that proverbial freshman wall. They have had a great spirit and they have competed well every week.”
Johnson’s team-best 67 tackles make him the only freshman in the country to lead his team in tackles. Maggitt is fourth on the Vols with 42 stops, which ranks second among freshmen in the SEC.
While their physical attributes made them stand out when they arrived on campus, it’s their mental capacity that’s allowing them to evolve.
“The progress has been great for our linebackers,” Sirmon said. “They have done a good job from the first game of the season. If you look at their production they have been a lot more productive later on in the season. We have integrated Curt, AJ, and Austin, we have three guys playing two positions in nickel. That wasn’t happening earlier in the season. The guys have come a long way, picking up our base defense and our sub stuff, as well.
“In terms of that progress it has been great where we can leave those three guys in there really for any situation in the game. Earlier in the season we didn’t feel comfortable leaving the two young guys out there for the sub packages. The production, really up to last week we had done a really good job of eliminating our busts or those minimum mistakes that get us in trouble.”
PRAISE FOR VANDY’S DEFENSE
The Commodores are one of the most improved teams in the nation, standing at 5-5. One major reason has been the defensive scheme incorporated by new coordinator Bob Shoop. Vanderbilt ranks 22nd in the NCAA in total defense, allowing 327.6 yards per game along with just 21.6 points per game.
Their defense has been opportunistic as the Commodores returned three interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games in the same season for the first time in history
“They do a lot of different things and they are always in the right place and they make plays,” Hinshaw said. “They have made plays this year that cause frustration if you slip up for a second on them, they are going to be in the right place and they will hit you.
In addition to the strong pass defense, which has 15 interceptions to rank tied for seventh in the NCAA. Vanderbilt has a stout rush defense. The Dores have limited foes to just 122.9 yards on the ground per game, 32nd in the NCAA.
“They have done a great job against the run and it’s because they are all hitting their gaps where they are supposed to hit them,” Hinshaw said. “They understand leverage. They have good coaches over there and they are doing a really good job.”
Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw
(On Tyler Bray)
“There are some things that he needs to continue to get better at this week, the mental aspect as well as the physical, just throwing and working through some of the kinks. Your arm gets sore because he hasn’t been throwing. He’s working hard, he has a great attitude and he’s out there going a great job.”
(On the effect of Bray’s return)
“The tempo of the offense, going in and you like that. You like the fact that he goes in there and guys are reacting because he’s played in some battles. He’s gone out there and he’s excited to be out there back playing.
Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon
(On moving on after Arkansas)
“I think we always have to end up moving on. We felt it better served us to get going and moving on faster than reliving that film. We have the same set up throughout the week of we get rid of the game film within 24 hours and when they come back in on Tuesday they are fresh and ready to go.”
(On the coaches watching the film from Arkansas)
“Yeah, of course we watched it. We made too many mistakes early in the game. We did some things we didn’t practice. All I ask our guys to do is play like you practice. They did some things that they didn’t do in practice so I have to find a way to make sure they compete and play the same way they do out here. Nothing needs to change on Saturdays.”