» By associated press
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray has experienced many peaks and valleys in his junior season, but he was a model of consistency in his final weekly media session.
Three times during his discussion with reporters, Bray was asked draft-related questions. He gave pretty much the same response to each.
“We play Kentucky on Saturday,” Bray said. “That’s all I’m worried about.”
Tennessee’s season finale against Kentucky could represent the last college game for Bray and junior wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. All three are projected to get taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft if they forgo their senior seasons.
Because of their uncertain status, the future complexion of Tennessee’s offense remains almost as murky as the makeup of next year’s coaching staff now that Derek Dooley has been fired.
Fullback Ben Bartholomew, tight end Mychal Rivera, wide receiver Zach Rogers and guard Dallas Thomas are the only senior offensive players who have started at least five games for Tennessee this season. The Vols are expected to return Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, who have combined to rush for 1,238 yards this season. Thomas is the lone senior on an offensive line that has allowed only seven sacks all season.
Tennessee could have one of the more potent offenses in the nation if Bray, Hunter and Patterson stay in school. If all three leave, the offense would have a serious lack of star power at the skill positions.
Each could boost his pro stock by returning.
“Assuming they come back and remain healthy and iron out some of those wrinkles, I think they could go from being borderline first-round picks to top-10 picks,” said Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com. “But at the same time, there’s also the risk of a new head coach coming in and whether his system would fit those players, and also the injury concerns as well.”
Rang believes Patterson and Hunter could get taken late in the first round or early in the second, though he rates Patterson ahead of his teammate. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rates Patterson as the nation’s No. 12 overall draft-eligible prospect.
Rang currently has Bray as a second-round pick, but he believes the pre-draft interview process will be particularly crucial for him.
“He really does possess as much or more arm talent than any quarterback potentially available in the 2013 draft,” Rang said.
Bray has passed for 3,319 yards and 30 touchdowns this season. During one three-week stretch, Bray threw for 1,302 yards, 13 touchdowns and only one interception against South Carolina, Troy and Missouri. But he struggled in losses to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Vanderbilt. He also could face questions from NFL teams about his maturity and demeanor.
“There are some similarities to (former Arkansas quarterback) Ryan Mallett when he came out,” Rang said. “He had first-round tools, but there were some concerns about his mental makeup and things of that nature. It’s the same kind of thing with Tyler Bray. He’s going to have to impress teams with his maturity and leadership.”
Patterson leads the SEC with 1,700 all-purpose yards and is 21 yards away from Reggie Cobb’s 25-year-old school record in that category. He’s the first college football player since 2008 to score a touchdown four different ways — receiving, rushing, returning a punt and returning a kickoff.
“I’m not even thinking about that right now,” Patterson said. “I’m just trying to get this game over with. Whatever happens out there just happens.”
Rang said Patterson’s big season has moved him ahead of Hunter, though the Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College transfer still needs to improve his route running. Rang also noted Patterson might have to answer questions about his maturity. Each of the last two weeks, Patterson has been penalized for taunting.
After missing the last nine games of the 2011 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Hunter has returned to form this year while catching 70 passes for 1,018 yards and eight touchdowns. But he also has a number of drops, and his production hasn’t been consistent. Six of his eight touchdown catches came against Georgia State and Troy.
“If I had just seen (Hunter) running around and hadn’t known his injury history, I wouldn’t know which knee he’d hurt,” Rang said. “That’s certainly a testament to his work ethic and ability to bounce back from a major injury. But inconsistency catching the ball, especially tracking it over his shoulder on deep passes, has been a problem this season. It hasn’t been one or two games. It’s been a handful of games, and at times in critical situations against big-time opponents.” TAS