HOOVER, Ala. -- Peyton Manning's passing camp annually invites top high school quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs from across the country to his home state of Louisiana, offering instruction and an opportunity to meet the University of Tennessee and NFL legend. Top college quarterbacks are invited as counselors, with this year's class featuring a particularly SEC-heavy group.
Tyler Wilson, the first-team All-SEC selection, attended. Georgia's Aaron Murray and LSU's Zach Mettenberger showed up.
But the participant with the closest ties to Manning's history also offers up one of the upcoming season's most intriguing variables.
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, oft-chastised and ultra-talented, possesses the capability to lead the Volunteers back from the SEC East cellar. He's the most physically gifted passer in Knoxville since Manning, but volatile on-field exploits and an unfortunate thumb injury have thus far hindered his young career. Bray could easily be a top NFL Draft pick in 2013 -- or even 2014.
The ability is all there.
And this season will present his best shot to date.
"We need to get Tennessee back to where it used to be. We're used to winning championships, and these last couple years we haven't been winning ballgames," the junior signal-caller said. "I think we're ready to compete with top teams already."
Bray's shared a suite at the Manning Camp with USC quarterback Matt Barkley, one of college football's golden boys and the potential top draft picks, in a curious juxtaposition of perceived personalities. The Volunteer made throat-slitting signs to opponents as a freshman, visibly argued with coach Derek Dooley during games and has, by most accounts, yet to live up to his potential. The Trojan, on the other hand, leads a surfer-boy lifestyle and the national preseason No. 1 team -- oh yeah, and he hung out with Snoop Dogg at Coachella.
The two hit it off, though, Bray said, laughing and joking their way through good-natured camp competitions, which makes sense in a way. Despite a wide discrepancy in their popularity, both enter 2012 with striking similarities. Their offenses are dynamic, each complemented by a deadly receiving corps. Both California natives know a thing or two about Lane Kiffin. Their respective teams field defenses with question marks, but no one seems to mind when the hopefulness of points fills the air.
Defense wins championships, offense breeds optimism. Tennessee's aerial attack certainly provides that, with one player's maturation serving as the focal point.
"You have to live as the quarterback at Tennessee. If your lifestyle is not reflecting that, then it's going to be hard to go out and perform to your best," Dooley said. "I've seen a real change in Bray's maturity level. I'm hoping he continues on that path and I'm hoping it will net him some big results this fall."
He will certainly have help.
All-SEC receiver Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who posted big-time numbers before an injury against Florida ended his 2011 season, were slated to be one of the top receiving duos in the nation, a collective 12 feet and seven inches of speed and physicality with 20 career touchdowns. That's no longer the case.
They are now a trio.
"I've got three guys that are 6-2 and above, all run 4.4s and jump 37 inch and above verticals," said Bray, who has passed for more than 3,500 yards and 35 touchdowns in just 16 games. "It's kinda hard to compete with those guys."
Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is that third guy. The 6-foot-4 Hutchinson Community College standout -- Bray called him "the mix between Justin and Da'Rick" -- was a significant coup for Dooley on National Signing Day, and the two-time JUCO All-American adds scary depth to the unit.
"It's going to be tough for a defense to defend three guys like that," linebacker Herman Lathers said. "I'll take them on my team any day with a quarterback like Tyler Bray, who can actually get the ball to them. I'll take 'em any day."
So, Tennessee boasts a pro-quality quarterback and ridiculous receivers to boot. That doesn't sound fair to opposing defenses. But can the offensive line keep Bray upright and heathy in 2012? Can the Volunteers piece together a consistent running game? Can they stop anyone from scoring? All valid questions, all with similarly vague answers about returning Tennessee back to prominence through teamwork and perseverance.
At the moment, no one seems to recall last year's mediocre defense that gave up nearly 28 points per game against SEC opponents. Running back Tauren Poole, last season's starter, must be replaced. The offensive line returns largely intact, but the jury is still out if that's a positive or negative attribute.
But those are issues to address in September, right? It's July, and Bray is in the spotlight.
His individual statistics already rival that of Manning's first two seasons (Manningpassed for 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 1994 and 1995) -- all while missing 10 games -- but team success has not followed suit.
That's the next step.
And Bray could take it without causing anyone to blink an eye -- it is never a question of "if" but "when" with him. He'll never be college football's favorite son like Barkley is or Manning was, but he has the capacity to reach similar collegiate heights.
The time, if ever, is now for Tyler Bray's breakthrough personal moment. Tennessee is simply hoping to ride the wave back to shore.