It’s a big week for Tennessee football.
The Vols open up SEC play Saturday night at Florida in a key game for both Billy Napier and Josh Heupel’s program. Tennessee’s SEC opener against Florida is always crucial but takes on greater importance when the Vols are competing for the divisional title.
Josh Heupel’s third Tennessee team has stated a clear goal to win the SEC East and if they want to do so it starts with the program’s first win in Gainesville since 2003.
Heupel, tight ends coach Alec Abeln, inside linebacker coach Brian Jean-Mary, tight ends McCallan Castles and Jacob Warren, defensive tackle Omari Thomas and cornerback Warren Burrell all talked to the media Monday or Tuesday.
Here’s what they said about the Florida Gators and the challenge that awaits Tennessee Saturday night in Gainesville.
“Looking forward to going and playing a really good football team here. Great opportunity. You come to Tennessee because you want to play in these types of games, these types of environments. Sitting on primetime Saturday night. Great challenge in front of us. Really good football team. They’re big, strong, athletic on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Skill players on both sides are really good. Great speed and it’ll be a huge test for us.”
“First of all, they’re always really athletic. They’re physical at the line of scrimmage. It’s a great environment. At the end of the day in this game, yesterday has nothing to do with today. The previous play has nothing to do with what’s going to happen on the next play. It’s about preparing the right way, practicing the right way (and) that will lead to you playing the right way.”
On Florida’s skill players and quarterback on offense
“They’ve got great team speed. Got athletes that can go make plays in space. You’ve got to bottle up the run game. That’s a huge part of what they do and that sets up their play-action pass. A year ago, they hurt us with some of that. We’ve got to be able to fit the run and then play assignment-sound and play the ball well when it’s in the air.”
On needing to tune out the noise of playing at The Swamp this weekend
“You’re not going to completely tune out the noise, but once you get the play call, man, you’re focusing on your job. It’s 11 guys inside of the white line. I don’t care if it’s at home, on the road, in the backyard. These guys have been doing it for a long time. You do have to control your emotions, right? You have to be able to execute and play within yourself. That’ll be a big part of the football game.”
On Tennessee’s rush defense so far this season and what he’s seen from Florida’s rushing attack
“We’ve done a good job of destructing blocks at the line of scrimmage. The second and third levels have fit it right and at the end of the day, we’ve changed the line of scrimmage the first couple of weeks. This will be the best offensive line that we’ve seen. They’re big, strong, they’re athletic and look like a typical Florida offensive line.”
On what stands out about Florida’s defense
“They’re good up front, they’re good on the backend and they’ve got good players. Structure wise, they do a couple of things that give you some decisions to make. On third downs they’re really multiple, do a good job presenting that package and they really make you work to earn it.”
On if there are any changes to playing against Florida’s defense from last season
“We’ll find out. It’s always interesting when you sit down on Sunday and start watching guys and think, ‘okay, does this make sense for what we’ll see or not?’ In the family of Pete Golding, Ron Roberts and all those guys are kind of in the same tree but there’s different twists and some of that’s the different personality of the coordinator, some of that’s different people and different defenses. I do think they’ll have a great plan and we’ll have to go answer the bell.”
On what he’s seen from Florida’s offense
“Florida (is) very, very talented. We always start with the quarterback. I think Graham Mertz – I had a chance to see when I was at the last job I was at – and I know he’s a super talented kid. Really, really good arm. Really, really good pocket presence. I know he was a highly recruited kid coming out of high school. (He) shows the poise and shows the pocket presence of a big-time quarterback. We’re going to have to do a great job with him. And the thing that I think he’s done in the first two games is he’s shown the ability to pick up yards with his legs, which I know he’s not known for, so that adds an extra element to him. And then, (Florida has) obviously the best backfield we would have seen to this point with Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne. I think those guys are really the guys that make their offense go. We have to do a great job stopping the run and controlling those guys. They’re two very, very talented running backs that I think their offense feeds off of. Wideout wise, I think Ricky Pearsall is one of the best wideouts in the SEC right now. He does it all for them. You line him up all over the field, he makes the tough catches and the tough plays. We’re going to have to know where he is on every play. But a very well-coached team. Big, physical offensive line. They do a lot of things to create mismatches with their scheme. We’re going to have to do a great job – you mentioned communication, you mentioned being assignment sound – we’re going to have to do a great job this week.”
On facing Florida’s offense
“They have a good squad over there. Couple of experienced guys, they’ve got a couple young and explosive guys, mostly speaking about their wide receiver room. They’re a good team. In the SEC, everywhere you go you’re going to play real big-boy football, so they’re not a team we are taking lightly. We go about our process every single day and play our game.”
On what he tells his younger teammates about the environment at Florida
“An SEC away game, anywhere you go, it’s a hostile environment. Everybody knows that you’re playing to get beat, everybody in those stands is rooting for something bad to happen. It’s about whenever you go into those other environments, it’s about mentally staying where you are, locking in on what you practiced and what you worked on. We’ve worked on these things and repped thousands of times at practice. Don’t get out of the game plan, just keep your head in it, and play your game.”
On being from UC Davis and playing at Florida
“For me, every game is crazy, because these are my first SEC games. So, I am super excited; it is going to be a great area to be in, The Swamp for a night game. It is going to be crazy.”
On if he watched games at Florida growing up
“I grew up watching Pac 12 games because I’m a west coast guy. You think about playing at Rice Eccles (Utah) or Folsom Field (Colorado). Coming to SEC and seeing the stadiums here— like the first time I saw Neyland I was like ‘oh my gosh’ this makes Memorial Stadium at Cal look tiny so I’m pretty excited to go down to Gainesville and play.
On the challenges of playing at Florida
“It’s challenging for a couple of reasons: The weather, first of all. It’s warm and humid in Florida so we’ve been preparing for that. It’s been humid and warm here, so we’ve been doing a good job of exposing ourselves to that type of environment. Obviously, the crowd is the same way like when you come to Neyland Stadium. They’re not necessarily rooting for you, so just kind of getting used to the noise and the ruckus, and hopefully being able to quiet it down before it gets too out of hand.”
On Tennessee not having won at Florida since 2003
“I think it’s something that, in the nicest way possible, everyone outside of the building cares about and talks about and thinks is a big deal. I don’t think to most of the guys on the team, like you mentioned the younger guys, whether they really know about it or not. Just one of those things that, again, doesn’t really matter. When we’re on the field who cares how long it’s been? Whether it’s here or there or whatever just going out there and trying to compete. Be the best on this day. Obviously it would be great to win there for sure after all these years. Just something that we’re not necessarily worried about.”
On what stands out about Florida’s offense
“Looking at Florida on tape, they’re a bunch of big physical guys up front who are athletic and they just try and create holes for their running backs. They have really good running backs to hit the holes. They’re very patient in the run game and for us to be successful we just have to play vertical and continue to play with our hands and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage where it creates different knock backs for them— something they really haven’t seen as well as it makes the running back come to you rather than allow him to be patient and pick what hole he want to go through.”
On if he looks forward to playing big offensive lines like Florida’s
“Oh yeah, it’s very exciting. You come to Tennessee to play in games like this and to win games like this. It’s good just to be able to go out there and have the opportunity to go out there against other great athletes like Florida has on the offensive line. Big, physical guys who are athletic. It’s good because that’s a lot of what we have on our defensive line, so it will be a good test for us to just go out there and continue to play and have fun.”