Scouting the Tennessee Volunteers ahead of Saturday’s matchup with Florida

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The Gators didn’t win last week, but you may not be able to guess that by the energy around the program. They came up just short of upsetting No. 1 Alabama in a 31-29 loss, but it certainly earned Florida some national street cred, and it’s clear that UF is not as far away from title contention as some may have thought entering the year.

Fresh off a disappointing loss, the Gators have a very favorable matchup this week as Tennessee comes to town. The rivalry with the Volunteers was once arguably Florida’s biggest in the SEC, but the series has been almost entirely one-sided in recent years. Since 2004, UT has won just one game in the annual series, which came in 2016.

The Volunteers enter this game at 2-1 with a loss to Pittsburgh at home in Week 2, and the Gators should be able to bounce back in dominant fashion. Under coach Dan Mullen, Florida has won every game against the Vols by at least 10 points.

But this team is effective at some things, and UF can’t rest on its laurels after a strong performance last week. Here’s a look at our scouting report ahead of Saturday’s game.

Program Overview

Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

This is Tennessee program has fallen a long way from the days of Peyton Manning and title contention. Just one year removed from an SEC East title, the Volunteers made the controversial decision to fire longtime coach Phillip Fulmer after a 5-7 finish in 2008. Since then, things have been an unmitigated disaster. The team is now on its fifth coach since Fulmer's dismissal, and other than an 8-5 season in 2019 in coach Jeremy Pruitt's second year, Tennessee hasn't had a winning record since 2016. UCF coach Josh Heupel was brought in this offseason to replace Pruitt, and in Heupel, the Vols get a guy who has SEC experience (he was Missouri's offensive coordinator from 2016-17) and achieved success as a head coach, going 28-8 during his time in Orlando. But Heupel knew he was taking on a rebuilding project, and things have been slow to turn around so far. The Vols have two wins against Bowling Green State, one of the worst teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and Tennessee Tech, a team in the Football Championship Subdivision. Tennessee hosted Pitt in Week 2, and it lost in a shootout to a Panthers team that followed up its performance with a loss against a MAC team in Western Michigan last week. The Volunteers now open their SEC slate against a Florida program that has been trending in the complete opposite direction the last few seasons.

Passing game

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Tennessee began the season with Joe Milton III starting at quarterback, but while the Michigan transfer boasts one of the strongest arms in the country, he doesn't necessarily have the accuracy. He struggled in the passing game in the first two contests before suffering a lower-body injury against Pitt. Hendon Hooker, a Virginia Tech transfer who played fairly well last year with the Hokies, finished the game and started last week against Tennessee Tech with Milton unavailable. Milton is close to healthy, and he is listed as the starter for the Florida game. However, if Milton doesn't look considerably better than he did to start the season, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Volunteers turn to Herndon, who has been significantly better. Tennessee has one of the worst passing games in college football through three weeks. The Volunteers are averaging just 199 yards through the air, a figure that ties with New Mexico for the No. 96 mark in the nation. But with Hooker, things have been a bit smoother. Hooker is completing over 70% of his passes (compared to Milton's 51.4%) and he's thrown five touchdowns and one interception this year with 392 yards. Milton, meanwhile, has started two games but only has 189 yards and a touchdown. The play of the unit with Milton is certainly skewing these numbers, and with Herndon, the passing attack seems to be improving. There certainly isn't a lack of weapons. At receiver, Velus Jones Jr. leads the way. Jones started his career at USC but transferred to Tennessee last season, where he became the third-leading receiver in 2020. This year, he's got six catches for 96 yards (both team-highs for receivers) and he has a touchdown. Meanwhile, Cedric Tillman only had three catches last year but he has evolved into a starting role this year, already matching his catch total from last year. However, the biggest standout has perhaps been sophomore receiver Jimmy Calloway, who stepped in to replace an injured Jalin Hyatt in the slot and has played very well. He's just behind Jones with four catches for 81 yards and a score. Hyatt also has four catches on the year and is listed as the starter against Florida, but expect Calloway to still see some targets as a rotational player. The Volunteers also have a dangerous tight end pair. Jimmy Warren has been the favorite target of Tennessee quarterbacks so far, and he has the most catches on the team with nine, though he only has 69 yards to show for it. He has been a red-zone threat, however, scoring two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Princeton Fant also has six catches for 60 yards. With these weapons, it seems like the Volunteers are destined to figure things out in the passing game, at least to some degree. But unless Milton can cure his accuracy problems, it's hard to see how he gives the team a better chance to win than Hooker.

Rushing game

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel

For a coach with air raid roots, Heupel has been very reliant on the run game in Year 1 in Knoxville. Considering the difficulties the team has had passing the ball, this is an understandable approach, and luckily for Heupel, he has a talented pair of backs to handle the workload. Last year's starter, Eric Gray, transferred to a title-contender in Oklahoma following the coaching change, but Heupel signed the No. 1 junior college running back this offseason in Tiyon Evans, who has been very solid so far for the Vols. He has 161 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries, and he has the speedier Jabari Small as a change of pace back. Small is seeing almost as many carries as Evans (30) and he has 135 yards and two scores of his own to show for it. Small has been banged up the last couple of weeks, but he's expected to be available against the Gators. In total, the Vols are averaging 223 yards a game, which is the 23rd best mark in the FBS through three weeks. Tennessee is lucky to have a talented backfield because the guys up front blocking are a lot shakier. Tennessee has two underclassmen starting on the offensive line, and aside from Cade Mays, a Georgia transfer at right tackle, there aren't many standouts among the group. Though it has been solid in run blocking, it isn't at all in pass protection, and its nine sacks surrendered lead the SEC. This unit is ripe to be exploited by a Gators front seven that has been good at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and stuffing the run.

Front seven

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Tennessee has a number of significant roster holes, but overall, it actually has a very solid defense. Though these numbers are almost certainly impacted by the quality of the competition (or lack thereof), it's hard not to praise the play of UT's 19th-ranked defense so far. And the strength of that unit is the front seven. The Volunteers boast the fifth-best rushing defense in college football, allowing just 54.3 yards a game, and against a Florida rushing offense that ranks second in the FBS, something has to give in this game. Sophomore edge rusher Tyler Barron has been the most effective player in the unit, as he's tied for first on the team in sacks with 1.5 and is second on the team in tackles for loss with four. On the inside, the Volunteers have a talented veteran defensive tackle in Matthew Butler. The play of the linebackers has been solid, as well. Jeremy Banks has been the most productive, totaling three tackles for loss and a sack. Playing opposite him is Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell, who missed the Tennessee Tech game. In total, Tennessee has sacked the opposing quarterback eight times this season, which is an above-average national mark. Unfortunately, those sacks haven't done a lot to inhibit opponent passing games, who have found a good deal of success against Tennessee's secondary. More on that next.

Secondary

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel

Tennessee is struggling much more against the pass this year than it is against the run. The Vols are allowing 210.7 passing yards per game, which is just the 67th-best mark in the FBS. Despite the front seven generating a fair amount of disruption, it hasn't helped the secondary slow down opposing passing attacks. This was especially costly in the game against Pittsburgh when quarterback Kenny Pickett had a very solid day and the Panthers totaled over 300 passing yards as a team. The Gators still haven't exactly figured things out in the air, but this presents a good matchup for Emory Jones to continue to get more comfortable. With that being said, there are still a couple guys the Gators will need to watch out for in the defensive backfield, the most notable being senior STAR Theo Jackson. He's an incredibly dynamic defensive player who can play any position in the secondary, but he's settled into a niche in the team's nickel/linebacker hybrid position. He's the team's leader in tackles (25), tackles for loss (six) and pass breakups (five) while also tying for the lead in sacks with 1.5. He's all over the place defensively, and he could make things difficult for Jones. The Vols also have a very solid outside corner in Alontae Taylor, a senior who was named to the Preseason All-SEC Third Team this year. Taylor has a pick and a pass breakup to go with 11 tackles so far. At safety, the duo of Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCullough is a solid upperclassmen pair. McCullough has a pick and two pass breakups, while Flowers has just one pass breakup. This is a Tennessee secondary that has some talented players, but it just isn't performing at a very high level right now. If it doesn't get things figured out fast, conference play could be an ugly sequence. The Gators seemed to have taken at least a slight leap forward in the passing game against Alabama last week, and this is a good matchup for Jones to continue to build off that progress. [vertical-gallery id=46350] Follow us @GatorsWire on Twitter and like our page on Facebook to follow ongoing coverage of Florida Gators news, notes and opinions.

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