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RTI Mailbag: Vols Open Up SEC Play At Florida

(Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)

Tennessee hits the road this week, traveling to Gainesville to face No. 11 Florida Saturday night.

The Vols are looking for a signature win in Josh Heupel’s first season while Florida is looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to Alabama last week. The RTI team answers all your questions about the Vols and the matchup in this week’s mailbag article.

Where has Dee Beckwith been?

Ric Butler: Not on the playing field often, interestingly enough. Which is certainly surprising. Going into the season, I expected Beckwith to be one of the guys who could be fighting for a contributing spot behind Evans and Small. However, it seems like Marcus Pierce and Len’Neth Whitehead have taken those two spots. Considering Tennessee has been down at least one of their two main backs in the last two games, I thought Beckwith would get more playtime. But even including all of that, I expected us to at least see Beckwith in potential specific schemes and situations. With that all being said, and still not much action from Beckwith on the field, I’m not exactly sure what that leaves him. The first few weeks of the season seemed to be used to get evaluations on certain players before SEC play begins, and Beckwith was not used often. His tweet last weekend did not help solve the mystery, either.

Ryan Schumpert: While its been a matter more related to depth than anything else, the lack of Dee Beckwith has been one of the most surprising personnel decisions of the first three weeks of the season. I don’t think anyone anticipated Beckwith taking snaps away from Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans but I thought he would either be third, or most likely fourth, in the Vols’ running back depth chart. Through three weeks, Tennessee has played five running backs and Beckwith isn’t one of them. The Alabama athlete is behind both Len’Neth Whitehead and walk on Marcus Pierce Jr. Beckwith started playing running back for the first time at the end of last season so it’s conceivable that the former tight end could improve at running back and earn playing time further down the road, but the fact that he hasn’t played a single offensive snap this season is a massive red flag. The 6-foot-5 running back isn’t in anyone’s dog house as far as I know so it must be as simple as him being buried on the depth chart. Beckwith had this cryptic tweet following Saturday’s win.

Do you anticipate Joe Milton or Hendon Hooker starting against Florida?

Ric: Truthfully, every time I decide on what I think Heupel will do, I wind up convincing myself of the other option. But I think there’s multiple layers to this question. The biggest, and most significant, factor here at the start is just the overall health of QB Joe Milton III. While Milton did not dress out for Tennessee Tech, he was still listed as the starting quarterback for Tennessee on Monday. Simple enough, if Milton is unable to play due to injury, Hendon Hooker is your starter once again. However, if Milton can play, Tennessee will have a decision to make. Personally, I would ride with Hooker. I believe that he has a calmer play style from what he have seen, and is in more control of his throws. Plus, I believe he is the better runner on the ground. But at the same time, Tennessee has only seen Milton in the first game, mainly. And it was the first game of the season. If everything from the behind-closed-doors practices is true, though, Milton’s ceiling is higher. Not too many quarterbacks can uncork a pass 60-70 yards down the field, but Milton can. If health isn’t a concern, Heupel will have two options at hand, in my opinion: Milton, the riskier pick with a higher ceiling, or Hooker, the safer pick who has been solid in his first few games. I dont know, maybe I am going to pick Milton after typing all of this. Tennessee can’t win by playing it safe. See what I meant about flip-flopping?

Ryan: The big unknown here is Milton’s health. Josh Heupel said Milton practiced at the end of last week but the Michigan transfer wasn’t able to go against Tennessee Tech. If Milton is healthy and available I think he will start for Tennessee. Heupel has been non committal about who will start if Milton is available, but I think the first year head coach still wants to ride with the transfer quarterback he brought to Knoxville. Despite the abundance of overthrows, I think Heupel still believes in Milton, or maybe more importantly, what he can develop him into. Against Florida, Tennessee is going to need an elite level performance from its quarterback to come close to pulling the upset. I think  Milton’s upside and his arm strength will lead to Heupel riding with the Michigan quarterback. I don’t think Tennessee’s quarterback is going to have long to throw Saturday and that’s where I think Hooker is the better choice. Milton is mobile enough with his legs but can’t do the things in the run game Hooker can. After watching Florida’s run defense against Alabama, I’d be really surprised if Tennessee’s running backs have a ton of success. I think the Vols need rushing yards from their quarterback to have success on the ground. Still, I think Heupel rides with Milton due to his potential.

How many points do you think Tennessee will score against Florida?

Ric: Personally, I expect Tennessee to score more than 20 points. I think there are a few things going in Tennessee’s favor aside from the players. Saturday will be Josh Heupel’s first SEC game and first matchup against Florida while at Tennessee. That being said, I think Heupel will have plenty of tricks up his sleeve to try to surprise the better opponent. Tennessee will have the benefit of surprise on its side, which I think will help from an offensive standpoint. I would say Tennessee’s offense, on its own, can account for about 14-17 points at minimum against Florida. But anything after that will need to be a result of either Milton or Hooker. If they can complete some of those deep passes, I think Tennessee can add in a few more scores on top of that, all the way up to 28 or so. Tennessee has to play unconventionally. If they can connect on a 55-yard touchdown pass, well, that’s far easier than trying to go 55 yards over seven plays.

Ryan: I think Tennessee is going to struggle running the football— some on that above, more on it below— against a good Florida front seven so I think Tennessee’s offense is going to rely on the big play and need its defense to help it when the field position battle to have success Saturday. I think the pace of Tennessee’s offense will give Florida some issues and I think Heupel will be able to scheme up some things early to give the Vols offense some success. Still, this is the best defense Tennessee’s played at this point in the season and one that should give the Vols issues upfront. We’ll have our final score predictions Friday but I think Tennessee will score in the 21-28 range.

What notable advantages and disadvantages does Tennessee have against Florida?

Ric: The biggest advantage is simply just the advantage of surprise. Personally, I have been impressed with Heupel’s play calling through the first few weeks of the season. Of course, at times, it has needed improvement. But overall, Tennessee has found plays in each game where they break the defense and get a guy 10 yards behind the defense. I would have to believe that Heupel has tricks up his sleeve that he has been saving for this game in particular. The biggest question, though, is if Tennessee’s players can execute. The biggest disadvantage, to maybe throw out a different point, would be playing the game of the road. The Swamp is one of the most hostile environments in college football, and Tennessee will be rolling in for a night game on ESPN. Not to mention, after watching a heartbreaking loss to Alabama, the Florida fans in attendance will want nothing more than a beatdown of Tennessee. The Vols have multiple key contributors who will either be playing in their first SEC game, playing in their first road trip, making their first SEC road trip, or playing Florida for the first time. These are smart, tough players who are anticipating a trip to Gainesville. But at the same time, the crowd will have a big impact and could make life tough for Tennessee if they get down early.
Ryan: Well, frankly there aren’t many advantages that Tennessee has over the fringe top 10 Florida team. I’ll give Tennessee the edge at special teams where Mike Ekeler’s unit has been really good in every facet three games into the season. Florida has had solid special teams play so far this season but the kicking game is still untested with the Gators trying no field goals over 30 yards. Florida has an obvious advantage with its defensive line against Tennessee’s offensive line. With the addition of Auburn transfers Daquan Newkirk and Tyrone Truesdell, Florida’s run defense has been stout through three games this season, giving up less than 100 yards per game. With the limitations of Tennessee’s banged up offensive line, I have a hard time seeing the Vols having much success in the run game. If he’s healthy enough to play, can Cade Mays continue his strong season a right tackle and keep Tennessee’s quarterback upright? One matchup where Florida has an advantage— but not as large as they may against most teams— is its running game against the Vols’ run defense. Tennessee has played three bad rushing attacks this season, so take it with a grain of salt, but the Vols’ run defense has been stout. Can a deep defensive line create penetration and cause some havoc against an improved Florida offensive line? That’s a major story I’m watching for Saturday.

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