Can Bray lead?

Last fall Tyler Bray proved he could pass. This fall he must prove he can lead.

Bray proved his arm in five late-season starts last November, averaging 310 passing yards per game in guiding a 4-1 finish. Now he must take the next step and show himself capable of commanding a huddle, managing his teammates, making good decisions and being a steadying influence on a young offense.

Can Tyler Bray, passer, become Tyler Bray, leader? His teammates say yes. In fact, they already see it happening.

"We're very confident about Tyler because when I see the guys in 7 on 7 I see the way they react when he changes something," junior offensive tackle Dallas Thomas said recently. "He'll change a route and they'll just look at him like ‘All right, I know what to do,' and they'll just go from there."

Bray wasn't exactly a student of the game when he arrived on The Hill 18 months ago. He has become one, however, pushing himself to learn everything required of an SEC quarterback.

"The big difference I see is him understanding defenses," Thomas said. "I can see that he can read the defenses more when they go 7 on 7. He don't know that I'm sitting back and watching him but I sit back and watch him read defenses and coverages, and I see him hot-routing the receivers and changes calls to get the receivers to do a different route."

Bray remains a low-key personality but that can be a plus at quarterback. When things go badly, he doesn't get upset or rattled.

"He's a real cool kid," Thomas said. "He don't get hot on the field. He tries to stay calm and we try to keep him calm."

Bray finished up early at Kingsburg (Calif.) High School and was practicing with the Vols in the spring of 2010 while the rest of his high school graduating class was preparing for the senior prom. At times he seemed like a kid who should still be attending high school. Those times are behind him now.

"I've seen Tyler mature," senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "Last year he was a young guy, still wet behind the ears and he was pushed into the position of playing quarterback for a university as big as this. This year I believe he's trying to embrace his position, embrace his role. Bray's started working toward being a leader of the offense and being a great quarterback."

Asked what specifically Bray has done in terms of becoming a leader, Jackson replied: "He and Matt Simms got the young guys on their off days and worked on their routes, went over plays so they'll be flawless in the season."

Working in the 6-foot-6, 210-pounder's favor is the fact he isn't the offense's only leader. In fact, he isn't even the offense's primary leader.

"I think Tauren Poole's kind of taken that leadership role, as far as the offense goes," Jackson said, referring to the Vols' senior tailback. "But I think Bray is second seat."

Derek Dooley said Bray remains in his "infancy" as a quarterback but the Vols' head coach expects his young QB to continue growing into the role.

"It's going to be just playing," Dooley said. "As much as we practice, quarterbacks don't get better until they play. It's just each week hoping he can be on a path of progress. That's my hope. We hope he doesn't hit a time where he's not improving each week. He's going to have some bad throws and he's going to have some bad games. Every quarterback does but I hope his body of work over the course of the season shows a tremendous amount of improvement."

Dooley will be monitoring his young QB closely when preseason camp begins. Much of what the coach will be looking for is so subtle as to be almost imperceptible.

"A lot of things might be things that you guys (media) don't notice," Dooley said. "It's putting us in a good play that you don't even realize he's done. It's making a good decision to throw a ball away and not get sacked. It's all of those little things that I think make the difference between winning and losing."

Although Bray needs to evolve in a lot of areas, there's one area of his game that Tennessee's staff hopes remains the same.

"What we hope doesn't go away is his ability to push the ball down the field and make explosive plays," Dooley said, "because that was his strength."

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