JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – There was one pass during Saturday’s scrimmage that Tyler Bray thought he was simply throwing away as the defense closed in on him. Instead, it landed perfectly in the outstretched arms of Justin Hunter as he tip-toed his way down the sideline for a 14-yard gain.
That is the kind of connection Bray has developed with his two primary receivers, Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers.
"There's really a bond between us,” Bray said. “They know where they need to be, and I know where they will be to throw the ball. I can pretty much just put the ball up in the air and I know one of them will catch it."
That is a scary thought for Tennessee opponents.
Prior to Hunter’s season-ending knee injury last year, the Vols scored 87 points in their first two games, with Bray completing 21 passes for 502 yards and five touchdowns to Hunter and Rogers alone.
In its third year together, the Tennessee trio thinks it is primed for its most productive season yet.
"We're just out there having fun,” Hunter said. “We're a little closer than last year, and now we really know what we need to do."
If Saturday’s scrimmage is any indication, the three Vol standouts will pick up right where they left off early last season.
Of Bray’s 18 completions, 13 went to his top two receivers with Hunter hauling in seven for 47 yards and Rogers catching six for a team-best 105 yards and a touchdown.
Getting the passing game going early in training camp has been a top priority for the Vols as they use it to set the tone and give the rest of the offense a boost of confidence.
“It is the most important because we have big receivers, a big quarterback and an offensive line that loves to pass block,” Rogers said. “Once we got our pass game going, we feel like we can get anything going. With big plays or short gain and that is what I feel like we did (Saturday). I felt like we came out and played fast and physical.”
MORE TIME FOR TEAGUE?
Senior Marsalis Teague has seen his share of change in his time at Tennessee. From coaches to positions, Teague has made the best of being moved around in various situations.
In his final year of playing in the Orange & White, Teague's role was uncertain for 2012 as he headed into training camp as the back-up left cornerback to sophomore Justin Coleman.
In the Vols' first scrimmage of the season, Teague was one of the defensive stars, racking up six tackles and a team-high four pass break-ups.
"Nothing is set in stone [with the depth chart]," said Teague, who started eight games last season. "That's what training camp is for. We're all competing and helping each other as teammates and making each other better, but at the end of the day, we all want that spot."
The Paris, Tenn., native opened 2011 by starting the first six games of the year but then fell all the way down the depth chart to that point that he didn't even see the field in the loss to South Carolina on Oct. 29.
Teague returned to the starting line-up for the final two games of the season and made a season-best seven tackles in the penultimate game against Vanderbilt on Nov. 19.
A wide receiver in his freshman year in 2009, Teague moved to the secondary when Derek Dooley arrived as head coach in 2010.
He said the secondary was solid in Saturday's scrimmage despite allowing more than 300 yards through the air.
"There weren't any real blatant [errors]," said Teague. "Sure, there were a lot of missed assignments, which is typical, but as far as the film, we'll go in and correct the mistakes and keep them limited."
SENTIMORE TRYING TO CEMENT SPOT
Darrington Sentimore hopes to have found a home with the Vols after a few seasons on the move.
The defensive lineman started his career at Alabama before playing at Gulf Coast Community College in 2011. In Saturday's scrimmage, Sentimore started and created havoc for the offense, posting two tackles and a pair of quarterback hurries as he put pressure on Tyler Bray and Justin Worley throughout the afternoon.
"He has been active all camp," Dooley said. "I think up front he and Mo [Couch] have had a really good camp."
Sentimore was pleased with his performance on Saturday, but also knows it was just the start for the 4-star JUCO transfer.
"I think I played good," Sentimore said. "I jumped offsides on one play, but overall, I did good."
Sentimore says the defense is playing as a cohesive unit and that defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri continues to press the Vols for more communication.
"Everybody bought in, so there wasn't that much confusion," Sentimore said. "Everyone is on the same page and we had a lot of good communication. We really worked as a team."
THE VALUE OF VETERAN-‘NESS’
The Tennessee offensive line has been lauded as one of the most veteran offensive lines in the nation. With over 100 combined started between the starting five, the veteran presence was evident during the Vols' first scrimmage of fall camp Saturday.
The line helped the running backs to 295 yards on the ground, including a 134-yard effort by junior tailback Rajion Neal.
Neal was quick to praise the line for their hard work after the game.
"I'm playing for those guys," Neal said. "When I got here, we went through a lot of ups-and-downs and these guys deserve the good publicity and they deserve folks to know that they are out here are working it. So it's my job that when they open it up to run hard, be precise and get up field because those guys deserve it. Without them, there wouldn't be too much of us."
Tennessee's quarterbacks also combined for three touchdowns through the air, and another on the ground, Saturday. Their time in the pocket was due in large part to the hard work by offensive line.
"It all starts with the offensive line," Bray said. Those guys blocked tremendously - I can't complain about them."
Bray also added that the emergence of the rushing game in the scrimmage helped him out offensively and that was all thanks to the offensive front.
"The running game opens up the passing game for me," Bray said. "You go to play action, you can dump it over the middle all day. Today's scrimmage was one of the best, if not the best scrimmage that the running game has had. The line blocked great and I can't ask for anything more."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Saturday's scrimmage)
"This was one of the better scrimmages since I have been here, but we have a ton of work to do on execution. Don't confuse that with `man we are good'. It is just a good sign and you can see it in the team. It is important to them, we are competing, and we have to do a really good job as coaches to clean up the execution. That is going to be a challenge."
(On holding training camp off-campus at Milligan College)
"I know that I like [this camp experience], coaching wise. I have had zero administrative issues to deal with, which is pretty nice. Just ball, all day. I am thinking about seeing if we can do this for six months. I don't think Milligan will let us stay up here for six months."
(On whether on off-campus training camp will become a yearly tradition)
"I haven't thought about that. I want to get through this week. It is just the first quarter of camp and we are doing pretty good. I don't know if I have told you guys but this is staff that we have, holy smokes. I complain about them a lot because there are so many of them and I don't know what to do, but when you have to move your entire operation four hours, you are glad they are there."
(On the competitiveness of the defense in Saturday's scrimmage)
"I think the competitiveness has helped us and has allowed us to create some roles for guys. Maybe they aren't going to be in there 50-60 snaps a game, but they can lock in on a specific role. That has created a lot of competition, which of course brings out the best in everybody and we are getting better because of it."
(On Brent Brewer)
"Brent's biggest challenge is staying in control. When you are closing in on a run, you have to bend your knees and be in control, you can't be out of control. We have had to slow him down a little bit so he can be more productive."
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On Da'Rick Rogers)
"Da'Rick is the one that gets hit all the time. I leave him in some troubled places sometimes, but he played really well [Saturday] and made some good catches."
(On his expectations for the offense)
"We expect a lot of ourselves, so we just have to click and run the offense like Coach Chaney wants us to. Once we do, we'll be a very good team."
(On where the offense can improve)
"We haven't necessarily struggled with the red zone, but we definitely aren't where we need to be. We're trying to work on that more so we can get our goals."
SENIOR DB MARSALIS TEAGUE
(On facing great receivers every day in practice)
"It is fun. You know it is a challenge because they are two of the best wide receivers in the country. For us, it is a good challenge for us to work with each other and make each other better."
(On the pass rush helping the secondary)
"Pass rush is very critical. Our d-line is doing a good job and our edge rush is getting good pressure. With the pass rush we get, it allows us to have tighter coverage and the ball comes out of there quick. With the rushes we got and the d-line getting pressure, it is the defense work as one unit."
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On the first scrimmage)
"It felt good. The offense came out here and did our thing. We had a lot of good plays and had a lot of big plays. Rajion ran the ball really well. Tyler took control of things. It was good to be out there. It felt great and I took a couple of hits and didn't feel any pain in my knee."
(On taking his first hits since returning from injury)
"Those were the first hits I had since I came back. I was ready to get hit since the first day of practice actually. I wasn't worried about it."
JUNIOR OL JAMES STONE
(On Rajion Neal during Saturday's scrimmage)
"I feel like he lowered his pads and went inside. He wasn't scared to take it inside and break a few tackles to get through and that's what you need, especially in a running back. He showed speed."
(On the offensive line's play on Saturday)
"I feel like we had good team take off and I feel like we were all on the same page. If we're all on the same page coming off the rock, there are going to be holes and creases for our running back. We have a feeling they're going to hit any creases that you make for them."
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)