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We answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“How many times has Coach Cornbread faced both UF and Dan Mullen as an assistant? And what’s his record in those games? Is Gitmo better or worse than Ainge was in 2004?” – @LoneNutVolFan
Nathanael: Pruitt has faced Mullen five times as an assistant/coordinator at Alabama, and the Tide won all five meetings. Mullen has actually never beaten Alabama/Pruitt in his career, though this will be the first time they face-off as head coaches. And that second one is a good questions. As a true freshman in 2004, Ainge completed 55.1 percent of his 198 pass attempts for 1,452 yards, 17 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. He was 16-of-24 for 192 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception against Florida in that 2004 win. Guarantano is a third-year player at this point, but he’s still yet to play a full season’s worth of games if you look at just his starts. But at this point, when it comes to taking care of the football, I think JG is better than Ainge was. But as a pure passer, I think Ainge had him beat. Ainge also had a better offensive line in 2004 than Guarantano does now.
Ben: Nathanael laid out the previous match-ups between Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen. I can’t wait until Saturday to see the chess match between each other. Personally, I think Jarrett Guarantano is a more talented quarterback than Erik Ainge was, but to this point in their careers, Ainge was better. But he did have the benefit of having an actual offensive lineman and not playing under Butch Jones. Guarantano has the arm talent to be a high-profile quarterback, and when given the opportunity, I think he’ll show that.
“Will we see JG rollout out more and take more shots down the field?” – Torrey
Nathanael: I personally would like to see him roll out a little more and do some bootleg plays, but as far as taking more shots downfield? I’m not sure. I think they’ll try some more intermediate passes around the 15-20 yard range, but I’m not sure how many true deep passes they’ll try in this game. They need to do more than dink and dunk passes, and I think they will. I think that’s why you’ve seen them take more deep shots against ETSU and UTEP. They’ve been working on that timing and testing that out.
Ben: I don’t know that you will see Guarantano roll out that much because Tennessee’s offensive line has actually been fairly solid in pass protection. In going back and watching the tape, I haven’t see Guarantano be pressured more than three times in any game this season. Part of this is because Tyson Helton draws up plays for Guarantano to get the ball out quick and I think you’ll continue to see that. I do think you’ll see more deep throws. Guarantano has proven he can make the throw and Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Josh Palmer have all showed they’re capable of making a play on a deep ball. Florida’s safeties have struggled in coverage this season, which makes me think Helton and Guarantano will take a couple of shots down the field.
“Does Pruitt let Helton open up a few more pages of the playbook? The QB draw and the slant game looks to be a great option. The game plan the past 2 weeks has looked very vanilla. I realize it was ETSU and UTEP but just wondering.” – @BoKeck1
Nathanael: This builds off the previous question. I do think we see the playbook get opened up against Florida, but I don’t expect you’ll see a bunch of wholesale changes. I still think you’ll see more runs than passes, but I expect it to be a little more balanced than it has been. Unless UT can dominated the Gators on the ground (which I don’t necessarily see happening). If that happens, then the Vols will probably stick with a more 60/40 split in favor of the run game. But I do wonder how many slants and out routes we see in this game.
Ben: Slants are fairly conservative because when executed, they’re easy completions. If Florida’s corners don’t press Tennessee’s receivers, I think you’ll see Guarantano attack them with slants and out-routes. I definitely think you’ll see Helton open up the playbook. It’s just part of a long football season progressing. Against East Tennessee State and UTEP, the goal was to be as vanilla as possible while showing a little bit of this-and-that in order to keep Florida on its toes in its preparation. That’s why you saw a quarterback draw, the deep ball seven times, and the wildcat featuring Tim Jordan. Now I expect Helton to let Guarantano show off his arm a little bit more and break out a trick play or two.
“How do you think our young corners will be able to deal with Florida’s experience?” – Caleb
Nathanael: I think they’ll be fine if UT can get an okay pass rush. They don’t even have to be exceptional or even good at pressuring Franks; if Tennessee’s pass rush can just be average against Florida’s offensive line, I trust the Vols’ younger corners to hold their own against the Gators’ receivers. I think they would’ve been better off against WVU had UT’s pass rush done them any favors at all. But it’s not necessarily Tennessee’s secondary that worries me in this game; it’s their front seven, specifically their outside linebackers.
Ben: Personally, I’m concerned. Florida’s receivers aren’t at the level of West Virginia’s, but they’re not far off. Van Jefferson is a future NFL receiver and Kadarius Toney, Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond, and Dre Massey are all capable of making plays. Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor have taken big steps forward over the last two games. I think the freshman duo along with Shawn Shamburger will be able to hold their own. My concern lies within Micah Abernathy and Baylen Buchanan. The best thing that can happen for the young corners is that a pass-rush emerges.
“Ok so we have a lot of big time recruits coming to the Tennessee and Florida game right, well does it really matter if we win the game or does it really matter to the recruits, and if it does how much does it really matter to them?” – Josh
Nathanael: I think fans can sometimes get caught up in how much the outcome of one game affects a recruit’s interest. I don’t think the outcome of this game will really sway a recruit one way or the other (unless it’s a blowout win or loss maybe). I think this whole season’s body of work is much more important to what kind of success this staff can have on the recruiting trail than this one particular game.
Ben: Winning or losing one game won’t be the ultimate decision-maker for a recruit. But a win will definitely help. For guys like five-star offensive tackle commit Wanya Morris – who has said that he wants to see progress on the field this season – a win over Florida would go a long way. Even if the Vols lose but play well, I think that goes a long ways in showing recruits progress. If you’re Tennessee, just avoid duplicating Arkansas’ season.
“Objectively, which program will be in better shape in three years when each new coach has established the program he wants?” – Jeremy
Nathanael: That’s a very tough question, and a good one at that. I think, objectively, I would side with Pruitt just based off the fact that he’s had success everywhere he’s gone and has won at the highest level possible as an assistant. Yes, he’s a first-time head coach, but I think I trust his attitude and scheme more than Mullen. I think Mullen is a good coach, but how good of a fit is he really at Florida? And how much of his success at Mississippi State was truly because of him? I think both have the potential to be good coaches and establish a good program, but right now, I’m siding slightly with Pruitt.
Ben: I don’t think Dan Mullen will run Florida into the ground, but I truly believe Jeremy Pruitt will end up being a better hire for Tennessee than Dan Mullen for Florida. I believe Pruitt is just as good, if not a better coach, a better recruiter, relates better to players, and makes better coaching hires. Again, I don’t think Dan Mullen will fail at Florida; but I don’t think he’s going to be as good as many think. Georgia may get in Pruitt’s way, but I would be stunned if Pruitt doesn’t get Tennessee back to at least a point where folks around the country and within the SEC respect the Vols.
“Offensive or defensive line biggest key Saturday?” – @clint_b83
Nathanael: Can I say both? I want to say both, Clint. I really do. Because I think both are going to be the two biggest keys for the Vols in this one, and both have been inconsistent/bad so far this year. But if you’re going to make me choose, I’m going to side with the offensive line. Tennessee desperately needs the line to hold up and do just enough to allow JG to find open receivers and help the running backs out enough for them to gain more than one or two yards a carry. The defensive line is important, but the outside linebackers might be slightly more important for the Vols in this one. So that’s why I’ll side with the O-line.
Ben: Both the offensive line and defensive line are crucial to the Vols success on Saturday. If the Vols produce a pass-rush and the offensive line plays well, Tennessee beats Florida. If not, they’ll be 0-1 to start SEC play. But if I had to pick which one is more important, I believe it’s the defensive line. With the offensive line, we have at least seen that the group is capable of playing well at times. The problem is that it is not consistent. With the defensive front-seven, the pass-rush has been non-existent through three games, two of which were against inferior opponents. That has to change in a hurry, or this five-game gauntlet coming up is going to be even more brutal than we initially expected.
“How does Florida beat Tennessee this year…kickoff return with 5 seconds left or 99 yard pass with no time left?” – @GSix1987
Nathanael: Boy, it’s been tough to watch for the last decade-plus, hasn’t it? Between Hail Marys, busted defensive coverages, backup quarterbacks coming in to roast the defense, special teams gaffes, and blown “catch” calls, Tennessee has lost in this series in just about every way imaginable.
Ben: If Tennessee beats Florida on Saturday, it’ll be because Paul Bain forces a fumble with less than a minute to go in the game and the Gators driving to put the game away, up just one point. Bain recovers the fumble and Jarrett Guarantano gets the ball back on the 21-yard line with 27 seconds remaining and a chance to etch his name in Tennessee folklore. Guarantano hits Jauan Jennings for a 47-yard pass to put Tennessee in field goal range, and with time expiring, Brent Cimaglia drills a 49-yard field goal to give the Vols a victory over the Gators. Pandemonium reigns.