Florida’s improved D views visit from high-powered Tennessee as ‘statement game’

Former Florida All-America linebacker Brandon Spikes never lost to rival Tennessee.

Now a student assistant coach while earning his degree, he does not plan to start now.

“Every day in practice he’s just yelling and yelling, ‘Beat Tennessee, beat Tennessee,'” redshirt sophomore Scooby Williams said Wednesday. “So, we got a chip on our shoulder, mainly because of B Spikes putting the bug in our ear.”

UF’s hopes likely hinge on an improved defense containing UT coach Josh Heupel’s high-octane attack.

When Spikes starred at UF, the defense played in the shadows of Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Co. yet proved the backbone of national championship teams in 2006 and ’08.

The Gators’ embattled D, on other hand, no longer appears to be the pushover or a liability it had been in recent seasons. At times, it can look downright formidable.

The SEC’s leader in total defense forced Utah, playing without star quarterback Cam Rising, to punt on five of its six second-half possessions during a 24-11 loss. Last Saturday, FCS foe McNeese crossed midfield once during a 49-7 loss in Gainesville.

The No. 11 Vols (2-0) offer Florida (1-1) a far stiffer test in the SEC opener because of their talent level and up-tempo style.

“It’s more of a statement game,” Williams said. “Like the last two weeks wasn’t a fluke.”

The Gators are better and deeper at all three levels with first-year coordinator Austin Armstrong bringing a new attitude and energy level.

Armstrong arrived following Patrick Toney’s sudden departure to the NFL prior to spring practices able to build on the 2022 scheme, having served as coach Billy Napier’s inside linebackers coach and alongside Toney in 2020 at Louisiana.

Armstrong, 30, also brought his own ideas and big personality to the gig.

Spikes, 36, has nearly met his match getting the Gators geeked up for Tennessee week.

“Armstrong, on a scale of 1-10, 15,” Williams said. “B Spikes, 20.”

The Gators now look to keep up with the Vols.

Heupel’s fast-and-furious attack aims to test a defense’s ability to line up and keep up.

“They run about three plays a minute,” Napier said. “They’re first or second in the country in pace. There’s an element to that that’s unique.”

Tennessee has not kept pace with the 2022 attack.

Last season’s team led the nation in scoring (46.1 ppg) and total offense (525.5 ypg) behind star quarterback Hendon Hooker, who threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions, and Jalin Hyatt, who led the SEC with 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns receiving.

New quarterback Joe Milton III, a Michigan transfer in 2020 who hails from Gators’ old recruiting hotbed Pahokee, has all the physical tools but has yet to put it all together at age 23.

At 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, Milton can throw nearly 90 yards, yet has completed just four passes longer than 20 yards in two games. Also a threat to run, Milton has run for three scores, passed for four and not committed a turnover. He boasts a 14-0 TD-to-interception ratio the past two seasons.

Earlier this week, Napier called Milton “a freak of nature,” but is more confident in his defense than during a 38-33 loss last September in Knoxville.

“We’re in Year 2,” he said. “Each one of the assistant coaches has done a nice job going to another level. Austin has done a good job from a leadership standpoint. We’ve add some new front-seven players and not only through the portal but also some really talented true freshmen that have made us better.

“We’re making improvement, much like we anticipated.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at