Tennessee’s run defense has been the biggest strength of Josh Heupel’s team three games into the season. The Vols have bottled up opponents rushing attack, ranking second in the SEC by allowing just 54 yards per game.
The Vols haven’t been facing quality rushing offenses yet this season. Even the Vols’ main non conference opponent, Pittsburgh, has struggled to run the ball through the first three weeks of the season.
So the challenge gets ratcheted up this weekend when Tennessee travels to Gainesville to face No. 11 Florida’s dynamic run game.
“Obviously, this is the best offensive line that we’ve faced, best group of running backs, best group of receivers, quarterback – it’s the complete package,” Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner said of Florida. “We’ve got to elevate our level of play. We’re in conference now, it’s going to be much more intense. It’s going to require more strain. I mean, everyone has to strain harder, everyone has to do little extra things that it takes in preparation, in film study, getting extra rest, putting the right things in their bodies and all the little things it takes to play at a high level.”
Facing a normal Florida team would mean Tennessee’s facing a better running game than they’ve seen all season. However, this Gators team takes it to a whole new level. Florida leads the SEC and is second nationally in rushing yards.
The Gators have earned a 90.7 rushing grade this season according to Pro Football Focus, an elite grade that ranks fourth nationally.
Florida’s rushing attack includes five quality ball carriers who have run for 99 yards or more this season.
At quarterback, starter Emory Jones is more than capable of moving the chains with his feet, rushing for 232 yards and two touchdowns this season. The real running weapon at quarterback is freshman quarterback Anthony Richardson.
Richardson proved to be a dynamic playmaker in the first two games this season, rushing for 275 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 attempts. The dual threat quarterback missed last week’s game with Alabama due to injury and is questionable this week against the Vols.
“They’re a two-headed monster, with Emory (Jones) and the Richardson kid (Anthony Richardson),” Garner said. “They’re both very good and they’re both dynamic runners. Actually 15 (Richardson), may be more dynamic, as far as pure elite speed. But Emory is a seasoned veteran, he’s got three years in that system, so he totally understands what Mullens is trying to do. They do a great job with power, the counter reads, and they don’t put them in situations for them to beat them. They give them situations that are conducive in them being successful, via the RPOs off the run. Then you throw in the quarterback run, which now they’ve got an extra guy we can’t account for with hats. So, it makes us have to make sure that we’re being really dialed in and detailed to doing all of the little things correctly.”
At running back, Florida has found production from a trio of players. Malik Davis leads the group with 31 carries and 212 yards but physical back Dameon Pierce has recorded 110 yards and a team high five touchdowns while Nay’Quan Wright has rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries.
Florida’s run blocking hasn’t been as dominant this season though. The Gators have earned an average 63.4 run blocking grade so far this season according to PFF.
That’s where Tennessee has to take advantage if they want to pull the upset Saturday night. Tennessee’s run defense has earned a 90.7 rush defense grade this season— good for third nationally— and it’s due to the strong play of Garner’s unit.
The Vols’ defense knows that they face a greater challenge this week than they have in the past three, but the unit is concentrating on the basics against the potent rushing attack.
“Watching them up front, they have a strong o-line, so as a unit we need to play vertical, contain the quarterback, the running back (and) keep the running to a minimum,” senior defensive lineman Ja’Quain Blakely said. “Just play hard and play vertical.”