On third down, bona fide quarterbacks separate themselves from those that simply "play" quarterback. It’s those situations where everyone knows a pass is coming. The concession workers know it’s a pass. The mascot tousling some kid’s hair knows it’s a pass. My mom up in Philadelphia, watching a Lifetime movie, knows it's a pass.
So what does it tell you that Tennessee leads in the NCAA in third-down efficiency, converting 62.1 percent of its 58 attempts through four games?
It means, folks, that Tyler Bray has grown into a premier quarterback.
“He’s playing good football, man,” UT coach Derek Dooley said with a Cheshire cat grin on Monday.
Bray, the Vols’ strong-armed, hard-nosed sophomore quarterback, is operating with the temerity of an upperclassman. More so than in any other area, his ripened talent comes across the most on third down. In Saturday’s 41-10 victory over visiting Buffalo, the Vols converted 12 of 16 first downs. Eight of the conversions came from Bray. On a 74-yard touchdown drive toward the end of first half, he faced third-and-10, third-and-9 and third-and-4 and completed first-down passes each time.
Following the game, Dooley simply explained, “Throwing and catching ... that's what third down is.”
It helps when every throw is deftly accurate. After only nine starts behind center at Tennessee, Bray has developed the essential banality that comes with being a premeir quarterback. It’s not artistry — it’s disciplne and repetition. Three-step drop, progress through the reads, make a decision, uncork a bullet, release—catch—first down.
It’s simple, really. Bray has thrown only two interceptions. One was on a deflection. His accuracy is the difference-maker. He hits hands. He hits receivers in-stride. He tosses the rainbow over the shoulder and guns the laser between defenders. He could knock the glasses off offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s face. Wyatt Earp would be jealous.
“There is no question that's the reason we've had success on third down the way we have — because of his accuracy,” Dooley said on Monday. “It makes it really easy. He's got a catchable ball, puts it where the defenders aren't and that's the sign of a good quarterback. There have not been many good quarterbacks who aren't accurate like that."
Bray has such a bright future that it’s easy to overlook the present. Of the 11 quarterbacks nationally with 15 touchdown passes or more, Bray has done so with the fourth fewest attempts — 142. Those with fewer are Heisman candidates Robert Griffin III (Baylor) and Kellen Moore (Boise State), along with another sophomore Keith Price (Washington). As the schedule turns the corner toward full-tilt SEC play, it’s become clear that the one thing separating Tennessee from its league brethren is Bray’s right arm.
With Saturday’s matchup against Georgia quickly approaching, Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is likely centering his entire attack around No. 8. Bray ranks first in the SEC in passing yards per game (332.0), passing efficiency (176.05) and total offense (319.75).
Speaking on his weekly teleconference, Georgia head coach Mark Richt said, "Tennessee is very good at what they do and Tyler Bray is very accurate, as you can see. He's got a great quarterback rating and he may be the best in the country. I know he's the best in the league. It's definitely going to be a great challenge for us."
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Bray is just a sophomore. The reminders usually come off the field. On Saturday, he chortled while saying he likes to spread out his touchdown throws among his receivers, basically equating his pass distribution to some kind of Clausian gift giving. In every other aspect, though, Bray has matured rapidly. He was a beanpole in high school, a lamppost last year and now looks more like a smokestack. On the field, his skills and smarts have prospered from an offensive coaching staff with no turn over last offseason.
“He knows what to do, that is the key,” Dooley said. “His accuracy breaks down when he's not sure. When we do new stuff it takes a little while and once he gets it, he's got it.”
And now, get this: It’s accurate to call Tyler Bray the the best quarterback in the SEC.