Jan. 2, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
NASHVILLE -- In Tyler Bray's mind, the New Year rang in a day early.
Bray stood outside Tennessee's locker room in the depths of LP Field following Tennessee's 30-27 loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl Thursday night, eyes red and wet. His face was somber. He epitomized nearly every Volunteer who made their way to the team bus shortly before midnight. Only for Bray and the rest of the underclassmen, they have next year.
If there is a bright spot that shines from a topsy-turvy 2010 football season, it's that the amount of time the freshmen and sophomores played - and contributed - will pay dividends heading into the 2011 season. The hard part was saying goodbye to the veterans who helped mold these young players for a bright future ahead.
"It was sad," said freshman receiver Da'Rick Rogers about the seniors after the game. "We've got so many seniors who have put in so much work. Nobody wants to go out on a loss."
And nobody wanted the loss to be gut-wrenching like how the Music City Bowl unfolded in the final moments and two overtimes. Bray included. His interception in the second overtime stopped Tennessee's offensive possession and opened the door for North Carolina to claim the victory field goal.
"I feel like I just let them down," Bray said of his senior weapons.
"They've been coming up big all season, and they displayed that again tonight by getting open and making guys miss," Bray said. "Just doing what they normally do."
Those guys, however, will be gone next year. Still, the Vols have a list of positives on which to build offensively, starting with Bray.
Bray finished the season playing in just nine games, but throwing 18 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He tallied 1,849 yards and threw at a 55.8 percent completion rate.
Junior tailback Tauren Poole is another. He topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season despite running behind a constantly shuffled offensive line that was young and lacked experience. His final tally was 1,034 yards.
Freshmen receivers Rogers and Justin Hunter showed plenty of promise as well. Hunter finished the season with 16 catches for 415 yards and seven touchdowns, second on the team. His big number was yards per catch, which was a whopping 25.9, establishing him as a real deep threat in the Vols' passing game. Rogers, whose role increased throughout the season, caught 11 passes for 167 yards and a pair of scores.
On the offensive line, three freshmen and one sophomore started the bowl game, showing that the bruises this season may translate into a reward sooner than later.
In all, 11 starters on offense and defense were either freshmen or sophomores.
Half an hour after losing the bowl game, veterans like Moore offered up advice for the future of this football team: "Keep up the good work. Don't let anybody come between the team when we've worked so hard to get it together. Don't let anybody come and separate us."
Strong words from an upperclassman who helped lead a group through two consecutive coaching changes and one of the lowest points in the program's recent history. The message didn't get lost, either.
"Really, we can just work harder," Rogers said of what he's learned through this up-and-down season. "We need to remember this feeling and what it was like. When it comes the offseason and we don't want to work harder, just remember this feeling."
That shouldn't be too difficult.
"I hope it lingers in the offseason, and I told the team that," head coach Derek Dooley said. "Every time that they want to lay in bed and not work in the offseason, they better think about how they feel, so I hope that they bottle this feeling up. I know I will."
Bray felt it Thursday night, and admitted it will linger for some time. But by Friday, he was ready for the next chapter to begin.
"I'm going to feel bad this whole night like everyone else is, but I'll wake up tomorrow and start working for next season," Bray said just before stepping onto the bus. "We have a bunch of freshmen starting right now, and on the offensive line, wide receivers and running backs. We should be fine these next couple of years.
"It's not the ending we wanted. It's not the ending we thought we were going to have. There's nothing we can do about it now, but just move forward and just try to work for next year."