Blogger Q&A: Tennessee's Rocky Top Talk

COLUMBIA SC - OCTOBER 30: Tyler Bray #8 of the Tennessee Volunteers chased by teammates Stephon Gilmore #5 and Cliff Matthews #83 of the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on October 30 2010 in Columbia South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

ETA: Our answers to here questions are right chyuh.

This week's Blogger Q&A comes to you from Rocky Top Talk, easily the best Tennessee blog around. They'll have my answers to their questions up soon as well. Check them out.

1. Talk a little bit about the recent quarterback change. What makes each quarterback different from the other? Tyler Bray exploded against Memphis, and the Ole Miss secondary isn't very good. Do you expect anoth big game for Bray this week, or was that more of a fluke?

Since you're probably more interested in Tyler Bray, I'll start with Matt Simms and get Bray second.  Simms is very much an all-around decent pro-style qb, but in no way outstanding.  He reads defenses decently, he moves well, he throws well, etc. etc., but it's nothing that makes you instantly go all Mel Kiper over him.  He does have two glaring faults that we can see as fans: he tends to lock onto his main target, and he tends to hold the ball too long.  Despite locking on, his interception numbers haven't been egregious (but partly because a few potential INTs have been dropped).  He's serviceable, and if he has to come into the game we'll be just fine.  But he's not a Manning.

Ok, now for Bray.  To say that we're high on the kid is one of the more obvious statements of the month.  When you watch him throw, you do see Mel Kiper begin to drool:  Bray's passes are fast, accurate, require almost no windup, and is just as accurate deep as on short dumpoffs.  His arm is absolutely spectacular, despite looking like he's on a Gandhi diet.  Also, the 6'-6" beanpole has been remarkable good at moving in the pocket to avoid pressure.  He won't beat you with his legs, and he's good for one hilariously failed block attempt a game, but he's harder to bring down than he looks.  (If you want a player's take, check out senior WR Jones's quotes on Bray here.)

How good is Bray at the stuff that fans can't easily see?  We're not sure.  Dooley and Chaney both say that he still doesn't read defenses as well as they would like, and that he still has to read only half the field at a time on some plays.  But the odd thing in the Memphis game was that it just didn't matter.  Even if Memphis had the right coverage and had the receivers well-defended, Bray would simply zip the ball in where only the receiver could get it.

2. Lane Kiffin was a nut, but he went bowling in year one. Are fans upset that Derek Dooley is not headed for a bowl in year one? Talk a little bit about the differences in what each inherited from their predecessor as well as what they did with said talent.

WHAT?!?  What do you mean, 'not headed for a bowl'?  After we beat you, we have Vanderbilt and Kentucky.  We'll take revenge on Vandy for you, and Kentucky hasn't beaten UT in over a quarter century.  Three more wins, and Tennessee is 6-6 and bowl-bound.  Simple.

Ok, now a bit more down-to-earth.  Even if Tennessee is at 5-7 with a loss to either Ole Miss or Kentucky (both of which are very possible), this year appears to be the year that some 5-7 teams will go bowling.  Add that to the SEC not getting enough teams into bowls (especially if the Auburn thing truly goes south), and there is a very real chance for a bowl for Tennessee.

But more to the point: we're not upset.  Kiffin had even admitted a long time ago that 2010 would be worse than 2009.  It's a terrible long backstory about recruiting, coaching turnover, etc., but we have very few upperclassmen who are worth anything.  The short answer is this: look at our class of 2007, which ranked third on Rivals.  Then look at our roster.  We've also lost several of Kiffin's recruits, like Bryce Brown.  For all the to-do about the rankings for 2007 (3) and 2009 (10), the reality is that we just don't have much.  We literally have five usable defensive backs.  We don't have 10 offensive linemen.  We have two brand-new quarterbacks, and the third hasn't taken a live snap yet (and is also a true freshman).  The reality is that 6-6 is as good as we could expect.

Comparing Kiffin's first year to Dooley's, Kiffin survived off of the class of 2006, which had a lot of players starting in 2009 (like the entire O-line).  Kiffin's greatest success was keeping morale high after the loss of Fulmer (who meant a lot to a lot of players).  But where Kiffin had a mature team, Dooley has none of that.  So far, Dooley's success has been enforcing a long-term development program while keeping the seniors engaged and an active part of the process.  In the long run, we'll be much happier with Dooley, who doesn't require East Tennesseans to sacrifice their cultural pride.

3. Who is the best defensive player about whom no one is talking? The best unheralded offensive lineman?

Defense:  I'll go with Tyler Wolf.  He's a senior DB who has recently been playing a lot, and without whom Tennessee wouldn't even have a nickel package.  He's used a lot in run support similar to how Eric Berry was last year, and we haven't seen a mistake on his part.  You won't hear much about him on Saturday, but he should have a good day nonetheless.

Offense:  that'd be Zach Fulton.  He was our right guard, but he's doubtful for Saturday due to an ankle injury.  Honestly, I don't expect him to play, and that's not pregame injury smokescreen rhetoric.  He's a true freshman, though, and he's been picking up the schemes very well.  When he was in, the right side of the line was steadily improving and was beginning to look pretty good.

4. Does Tennessee appear to be heading in the right direction? Is recruiting going well? Are you seeing players improve a good bit? Obviously you're not where you'd like to be, but does that appear to be changing? Any coaches you'd like to be employed somewhere else next year?

I think things are looking good for Tennessee.  The best sign to me is that the main seniors are very excited about the team and have actually expressed regret that they can't stay around next year.  Recruiting is a bit slow, but we're filling needs.  I think a lot of recruits are waiting to see the rest of the year before making a decision about Tennessee (which is really smart), but we did just get 4-star receiver DeAnthony Arnett from Michigan.  (Aside: just check out his commitment videos.  Kid's got a sense of humor.)

We do see improvement, particularly on the offensive line.  We're going to struggle against your d-line, but it would have been a total disaster in September and should be just a bad mismatch now.  Our defensive line is playing better and getting better pressure on the quarterback as well.  It's still a work in progress, but it's certainly improving.

I also like the coaches as is, and don't know of any that should go.  As a confession, I have a total man-crush on Jim Chaney, our offensive coordinator.  He was O-coordinator at Purdue for both Brees and Orton, and (more importantly) at Wyoming in the 90s when I was an undergrad there.  That was Wyoming's high-water mark when they got as high as #13 in the rankings.  Our defensive coordinator is Justin Wilcox of Boise State fame, and we'll keep him over Monte Kiffin thankyouverymuch.

So in short, I think Tennessee will show very strong improvement in 2011 and 2012.  It's a great time to be rotating off of our schedule.

5. What's your prediction for the game How does it play out? Final score?

With the caveat that we're quite drunk on Dool-Aid this year, our predictions are naturally optimistic.  I'll go with Bray having one more lights-out game, passing for long TDs all over the field, but Ole Miss finding room to score as well.  Sprinkle in a little Neyland Stadium advantage, and Tennessee gets the homecoming win 31-24.

(And don't read anything into this being homecoming; it's the only weekend in either October or November that made any sense for it because we played Memphis out west this year.)

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