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VOL. 8 | NO. 40 | Saturday, September 26, 2015

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Dave Link

Despite Rhetoric, Florida Game Critical for Tennessee's Butch Jones

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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Tennessee’s Butch Jones will coach the biggest game of his three-year tenure with the Vols – and probably the biggest of his entire coaching career – at Florida on Saturday.

Like it or not, Jones is carrying the weight of UT’s 10-game losing streak to Florida on his shoulders.

Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 SEC) has played some of its worst football during the losing streak to Florida (3-0, 1-0), and none was worse than last year’s 10-9 loss at Neyland Stadium.

Now, the Vols must try to snap the streak at “The Swamp,” one of the nastiest environments for opposing teams and fans in the SEC.

Sports talk radio in Knoxville was buzzing with this all week: “If Butch loses to Florida, he’s on the hot seat.”

Vol Nation is calling the Florida game the program’s biggest in years – it’s magnified by the 31-24 overtime loss to No. 15 Oklahoma on Sept. 12 – but Jones is having none of the big-game talk.

“In terms of this week, great challenge going on the road into a hostile environment,” Jones says. “Everything is about preparation, and before you want to talk about this is the most important game and everything, it’s not the most important game.

“It is the most important game in terms of it’s the next game, and that is the way it is. We live in a week-to-week season. It’s a 12-game season, and we are working to get to 13. This game is important because it’s the next game.

“Does this game mean a lot to a lot of individuals? Absolutely. But again, everything is about our preparation. Everything is about our approach.”

Jones even got a little testy when a reporter asked: “Judging from your opening comments, I assume you’re downplaying the aspects of this game, just the streak, the history of the rivalry and stuff. If that is the case, why don’t you make a bigger deal about it?”

Jones: “What do you mean by ‘downplaying?’”

Reporter: “Well, you were saying it’s an important game because it’s the next game.”

Jones: “Correct.”

Reporter: “How much have you talked about the streak, or do you bring it up, and why not?”

“Well, first of all, (only) 12 individuals are on the travel roster that went to Florida (for the game in 2013),” Jones said. “That’s for you guys to talk about all week long (the losing streak). What matters is about our preparation, is about becoming a better football team and the challenge that lies ahead of us in terms of going and playing a really, really talented football team that’s 3-0.

“All we can control is our work ethic, our mindset, our improvement and our preparation and then go execute on Saturday, and that’s all you can do.

“Every game is critical that you play, so we don’t put more emphasis on one than the other because you still have a number of games left.”

A couple of UT players took the same company line when asked about the losing streak to Florida.

Junior cornerback Cameron Sutton was asked how much the team had talked about the losing streak and the motivation it has after letting last year’s game slip away (the Vols led 9-0 in the fourth quarter).

“It’s a new year, you know, it’s team 119 (at Tennessee),” Sutton says. “They’re a new team, as well. We’ve got a whole lot of new faces on this team, and it’s pretty much our first true road test of the year.”

Sutton was pressed later when asked what it would mean to finally get a win against this rival.

“Again, like I said, it’s another road test for us, our first real road test for us of the year,” Sutton adds. “It’s another week, another opportunity to play the game that we love.

“Like I said, continue the same mentality, the same focus out there on the field that we have each and every week. We played well this past weekend (a 55-10 victory over Western Carolina). We’ve just got to carry it on to the rest of the season moving forward.”

UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs is also vanilla in his answers about Florida and the streak.

Quarterback Josh Dobbs #11 completed three of his eight last throws during the game against the Western Carolina Catamounts at Neyland Stadium last week. Passing yardage will be harder to come by against the Gators.

(Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com)

Asked if the Vols face a mental hurdle against Florida, or if it’s just the next game on the schedule, Dobbs says:

“It’s just the next game on the schedule. Every game is important. We said it last week, we said it the week before. Every game is important, so we have to come out ready to play each and every Saturday because each and every Saturday it’s a season within itself. We have to be ready to play.

“We have to come out, it’s an away game, as Cam (Sutton) says, it’s a business trip for us. We’re going down there. We expect to win every time we step on the field, so we’re excited for another opportunity to play football.”

This isn’t just another opportunity, though.

It’s a game Jones needs badly.

Jones is 0-2 against Florida. His predecessor, Derek Dooley, was 0-3. Lane Kiffin was 0-1. Phillip Fulmer lost his last four to the Gators.

UT’s loss to the Gators last year was one of the most painful during the streak. Most expected the Vols to win.

Florida starting quarterback Jeff Driskel was intercepted three times, the third returned by Todd Kelly Jr. to the Gators’ 17. Florida settled for an Aaron Medley field goal, and another Medley field goal made it 9-0 after three quarters.

The Gators’ comeback started when Jalen Tabor sacked Justin Worley, caused a fumble, and recovered it at Tennessee’s 30.

Driskel was replaced by freshman QB Treon Harris. The Gators moved for the game’s first touchdown, Matt Jones’ 2-yard run. It was 9-7 after Frankie Velez’s PAT kick.

Florida’s defense stopped the Vols, and Jones’ 32-yard run set up a 49-yard field goal by Austin Hardin with 6:20 left for a 10-9 lead. Good enough for the win.

In 2013, Jones’ first UT team lost to No. 19 Florida 31-17 in The Swamp.

Worley and Nathan Peterman combined for 154 passing yards on 14-of-34 passing with four interceptions (each was intercepted twice).

Asked what he remembers from the 2013 trip to Gainesville, Jones says:

“We had numerous opportunities, and we didn’t cash in. I believe we took a team there that, really, I don’t know if they truly believed they could win.

“After the game we sat in the locker room, and we said, ‘You know what, we had every opportunity to win the football game.’ That’s part of belief. That’s part of investing in victory.

“There’s a lot that goes into it. We were opportunistic, in terms of an interception, but we weren’t able to capitalize on field position in that game.”

Does Jones believe this year’s team has enough confidence to win at The Swamp?

“I do,” Jones says. “I believe our players expect to win every time they step out on the football field.”

It needs to happen this week, for sure.

Matchups to watch
1. UT passing game vs. Gators ‘D’
: Joshua Dobbs had one of his worst passing games (if not worst) against Oklahoma (13 of 31, no TDs, one interception), and was slightly better against Western Carolina (15 of 21 for 144 yards and two TDS).

However, Dobbs completed three of his last eight throws against the Catamounts, and the passing yardage will be much tougher against the Gators’ loaded secondary.

Wide receiver Preston Williams had three catches and 98 yards against Western Carolina, including a 49-yarder for UT’s longest pass play of the year.

(Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com)

Kentucky’s Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards against the Gators in 2014, and threw for 126 passing yards in Saturday’s 14-9 loss to Florida.

UT’s mid-range to deep passing game hasn’t shown up yet, although backup Quinten Dormady connected with true freshman Preston Williams for a 49-yarder against Western Carolina. It was UT’s longest pass play of the season. UT’s receivers are averaging 11.6 yards per catch. Florida’s is only slightly better at 12.1 per catch.

Florida is allowing 202.7 passing yards per game; UT is averaging 189 passing yards per game, and now faces its stiffest secondary.

2. UT protection vs. Florida rush: Florida has a new defensive coordinator this year in Geoff Collins, who came to Gainesville from Mississippi State. Collins is known for coaching blitzing, attacking defense, and the Gators will bring the heat on Dobbs or Dormady.

The Gators had six sacks last Saturday against Kentucky – the team’s most since they sacked Worley six times in the 10-9 victory last year. Junior defensive end Alex McCalister and senior defensive end Jon Bullard had two sacks each against Kentucky, and have three each on the season.

Dobbs and Dormady were each sacked once in Saturday’s victory, and that shouldn’t happen against a Football Championship Subdivision team like Western Carolina. Florida has 11 sacks against in three games this season, while UT has five (none against Western Carolina).

3. Grier vs. Vols’ secondary: Redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier went the distance against Kentucky and completed 13 of 22 passes for 125 yards without a touchdown. It was Grier’s second start after winning the job over sophomore Treon Harris and starting in the 31-24 victory over East Carolina on Sept. 24.

Grier, who scored the first TD on a 1-yard run against Kentucky, couldn’t get the Gators into the end zone in the second half, and threw a pass from the 5-yard line that was intercepted by Kentucky in the end zone. The Gators finished with 245 total yards.

Florida coach Jim McElwain said the starting quarterback job isn’t settled. “We’ll still look at it,” McElwain said after the Kentucky game.

“Grier did some good things managing their offense,” Jones said. “We will be ready for Harris as well. They present some matchup concerns for you.”

UT’s secondary was bolstered Saturday by the return of senior safety LaDarrell McNeil, who missed the first two games with a neck injury. McNeil intercepted a pass against Western Carolina, returned it 57 yards to the 8-yard line, and Jalen Hurd scored from there.

Five things to watch
Dobbs on the Run: For the Vols to be effective with the passing game, Dobbs likely will need to have his share of carries out of the zone-read offense to keep the Florida defense honest.

Dobbs ran for a net of 6 yards against Western Carolina, which included the two sacks for minus-12 yards. He had net 12 rushing yards against Oklahoma (minus-33 yards, three sacks) and a net of 89 against Bowling Green (minus-6 yards, one sack).

The Vols feature two backs with different styles in power runner Jalen Hurd and shifty Alvin Kamara, but the running of Dobbs will be a key to the Florida game.

“It’s based on the play call, and it’s based on the scheme,” Jones says of the quarterback balance of throwing versus running the ball. “Some of it is a 50-50 ball when we have great confidence in our receivers to go up and get the ball. You saw a little more of that last week.

“Some of it is a scheme thing. Some of it is the timing of the pass concept. That all comes with repetition. For the most part, Josh has done a good job with that and so did Quinten on Saturday night.”

Youth in Swamp: Tennessee played 14 true freshmen in the first half of the Western Carolina game, and in 2014 played 23 true freshmen, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision in the nation.

Much has been made of the Vols’ youth. Many will be making their first trips and starts at The Swamp, one of the most hostile environments in the SEC and nation.

How will these youthful Vols handle it? UT can’t afford a shaky start, not in The Swamp.

“We just did the travel roster,” Jones says, “and 29 individuals will board the first plane for an SEC road trip for the first time in their careers. When we go to Gainesville, only 12 are on the roster that went to the game a couple of years ago.

“There are a lot of new learning experiences for this football team, going on the road and playing in ‘The Swamp.’ We have to make sure that we not only are physically prepared to play but mentally prepared to play.”

O’Brien’s Return: Senior defensive lineman Danny O’Brien was reinstated to the team Monday after serving a two-game team suspension, reportedly for failing a drug test.

Jones said O’Brien’s status for the Florida game was to be determined during the week.

O’Brien started all but one game in 2014 at nose guard and started the opener against Bowling Green. His return for Florida couldn’t come at a better time.

“He has to earn everything,” Jones says of O’Brien’s starting status. “He has to earn the travel roster spot by his performance in practice and by doing everything right. We have already spoken to him and laid out the guidelines.”

Williams’ Role: True freshman Preston Williams played his second game as a Vol against Western Carolina and had three catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

More importantly, the 6-foot-4 Williams gave the Vols a desperately needed vertical threat – catching a 49-yarder for UT’s longest pass play of the year and a 25-yard vertical route for a touchdown from Dobbs.

Williams is a feel-good story, too, having come back from a torn ACL as a high school senior at Lovejoy (Ga.) High and then re-taking the ACT and waiting more than two weeks for the results to gain eligibility this fall.

“The thing about Preston is that he didn’t have any training camp, so he has had very limited practice opportunities,” Jones says. “Every time he steps out onto the practice field, it is an opportunity to improve his skillset. Then, he is coming off the injury that he had his senior year of high school.”

Gators Secondary: Tennessee will be facing one of the nation’s best defensive backfields led by junior All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who has two interceptions this season for 96 return yards.

Florida’s other starters are sophomores Jalen Tabor or Quincy Wilson at cornerback, junior Keanu Neal at strong safety, junior Marcus Maye at free safety, and senior Brian Poole at nickel back.

“They’re obviously strong up front, and on the back end, they have really good DBs and are able to play a lot of man (defense) well,” Dobbs says.

“It comes down again to winning our one-on-one matchups. For us, it’s a team that always historically has had a good defense, and has been very productive on the defensive end. We’ll have our game plan. We’ll have to come out, win our one-on-one matchups and execute to play well.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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