By Paul Leatherman
So far in the Heupel Era the Vols have looked undeniably better than the year before. The offense is having fun, the defense is forcing turnovers, and special teams has been arguably the best unit in the conference. You can also get a certain feeling that the culture has changed into a much more fun atmosphere than what was presented with the previous coaching staff. That being said, the Vols are currently 2-1 in their first three games under new head coach Josh Heupel. The Vols were victim to self inflicted penalties and missed opportunities in their 41-34 loss to Pitt in week 2. Even in that game though, the Vols played hard and until the end. This effort is something we haven’t seen in a Tennessee team in quite some time. Tennessee now travels to the first away and SEC game of the Heupel era. The Big Orange travel to the swamp to face bitter SEC East rival Florida. The Vols have only beat the gators once in the past 17 years and have not won in the swamp since 2003. This team does not have Casey “Ice Man” Clausen and Jabari “Juice” Davis to count on this time in the swamp. However, these players became Vols Legends because of games like these. These games are why you come play in the Southeastern conference in the first place. So how is Tennessee going to snap a near 20 year skid in the swamp? Well I’m glad you asked.
The Defense Needs to step up.
Obviously it is going to take a lot of things to go Tennessee’s way for them to win this game, but anything is possible. The Vols have done one thing very very well all season. Stop the run. Part of this is due to new defensive line coach Rodney Garner. Garner replaces a group that did not have a position coach for most of the 2020 season due to an expert coaching call from Jeremy Pruitt (if you can’t read sarcasm, I’ll help you out and say it was right there). This defensive line unit is ranked 3rd in the nation by the Pro Football Focus. Players are buying in and doing things the Rodney Garner way. With Florida relying heavily on the run all season it is easy to see why Vol fans have so much hope. Tennessee has held opponents to just 163 yards on 93 carries, averaging less than 2 yards per carry (1.75 YPC). Florida will be this young defenses first real test against the run. Florida has rushed for 1,008 yards on 133 carries, averaging 7.6 yards. The gators also already have four rushers with over 100 yards on the ground. If Tennessee is going to steal one, they have to force quarterbacks Emory Jones and Antonio Richardson (If healthy) to beat them with their arms.
Who will play Quarterback?
It has been talked about all week and for half a decade in Tennessee football. The quarterback play. It is unknown of who will start and/or play for the Vols vs the gators but the options are there for Coach Heupel. Joe Milton lll started the opener against Bowling Green and the second game of the season against Pitt before exiting with injury. I’m not one to beat a dead horse, but Milton failed to execute the deep ball multiple times in his first six quarters for the Vols. Throws that were there that Joe just did not hit. Now, obviously you’re going to expect some rust from a guy who is coming off injury and into a new system and new head coach, but missing the throws he has missed and the way he has missed them are inexcusable. Hendon Hooker has been a bright spot in this offense but has looked a bit hesitant with some of his throws and has often time looked skittish with the football. Hooker does provide a different aspect to the offense with his agility and speed when running football. Hooker and Milton have the attributes of a perfect running back duo. Hooker is fast and agile, and Milton will take your head off if you’re looking at him the wrong way. Now, which quarterback that starts is up to Heupel and should have the trust of Vol Nation until given a reason to disagree. However, I believe Heupel should start Milton if he is healthy. Milton’s only fault up to this point is his deep ball. As annoying as that is to fans it is a very correctable thing. Milton provides the most upside and has shown flashes of an elite quarterback in the run game and moving throughout the pocket. If he can tone down that cannon of an arm and hit a couple of those deep passes he’s missed all season, I don’t think we are even having this discussion.
The Vols play the Gators at 7:00 est on ESPN Saturday, Sep. 25th. Josh Heupel could be the first coach since Butch Jones to beat Florida the first since Philip Fulmer to do it on the road. Now, this is a tall task for this Tennessee team, but a task that is a hundred percent achievable.