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Friday, September 29, 2023

Know Your Enemy: Tennessee Volunteers

Sports Editor Jackson Reyes sits down with Caleb Jarreau, the sports editor of The Daily Beacon for a Q&A

Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne runs the ball in the Gators' 49-7 win against the McNeese State Cowboys Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.
Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne runs the ball in the Gators' 49-7 win against the McNeese State Cowboys Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

The Florida Gators begin Southeastern Conference play this Saturday against the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers. 

Both teams come into the matchup looking to prove something. The Gators are looking for redemption after last season’s loss in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Volunteers will look to win their first game in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 2003. 

I sat down with Caleb Jarreau, the sports editor at The Daily Beacon, the independent student newspaper at the University of Tennessee, to break down the matchup. 

What would you say are the Volunteers’ strengths this season?

Jarreau: “Well, last year, the answer would have been very easy. It would have been pass offense and then pass offense for every other question you asked, but this year, it seems that the run offense has kind of taken over. The team is averaging 6.1 yards per rush so not what you would expect if you watched the team last year and they have more rushing yards than passing yards the sport thus far this season. So I think the run game is definitely a strength. You have three running backs back there with Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson. Jaylen Wright will get the most of your carries and then Jabari Small will be right behind him and Dylan Sampson has kind of that punch at the goalline when they need to put it in the endzone. So you've got what they call a three-headed monster. And that's kind of been leading this team and leading the offense thus far. And I mean, and if you really want to talk about strengths, something that's come up this year is the defensive front. I mean, your linebacker room and your defensive line, they're second in the nation in tackles for loss at first in sacks. So they're living in the backfield. Obviously, the opponents they play have not been the best, but you're still living in the backfield every down and just making stuff happen on the defensive side that frankly, would have not happened last year, so I'd say that's definitely your two biggest strengths right now. And whenever you go to the Swamp and you're facing a Florida team that likes to run the ball, you're gonna need that defensive line to show up.”

How has new starting quarterback Joe Milton looked through two starts?

Jarreau: “Yeah, I would say that the accuracy issues still persist, and he's not getting a lot of help from as wide receiver room. We think about last year, like you said, Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman. Those guys, even Jalin Hyatt — he was a smaller guy — he was a big target to hit. So even if Hendon Hooker was off with his pass, it was likely getting caught this year. I mean, we saw against Austin Peay, Joe Milton started the game one for 11 with 11 yards and 11 yards was to Jaylen right out of the backfield. And a wide receiver didn't catch a pass and until right before halftime. So, yes, part of that is on him but another part of it is on his wide receiver room when you think about Dont’e Thornton Jr., big transfer, big dude, he had a dropped pass. Bru McCoy dropped a pass over the middle. McCallan Castles, a tight end, dropped a wide open pass. They only have two passes over 20 yards this season and you haven't seen them air it out as much because frankly, I don't know if the coaching staff wants to open up the playbook yet against Austin Peay and Virginia. I'm sure we'll see them open up against Florida. But if Joe Milton makes a throw his wide receivers aren't really coming through with the catches. And if he doesn't hit him on the money, we haven't seen the wide receiver show they can go up and make a catch, you know, make that miraculous catch that we would see a Cedric Tillman, a Jalin Hyatt make. So the passing offense I would say is a concern. I wouldn’t say it's necessarily a worry yet. I feel like once you get into the swamp and get to Gainesville and need that passing offense to you know, start passing the ball and making plays that it'll come through, but we really just need to see the wide receivers, make more catches and Joe Milton hit them in stride.”

Where else do you think Tennessee needs to improve in order for Florida to win the game?

Jarreau: “Yeah, I think the offensive line is probably the next group that you would say it needs to improve maybe special teams but your offensive line has been a lot of rotating pieces. Obviously when you get it to the swamp and go against Florida. Those rotational pieces probably start dying down a little bit. you probably get your set five and try to roll with it. They've been effective in the run game. There's just breakups or miscommunications here and there. Joe Milton took a couple sacks that you probably wouldn’t want him to take. And part of that is on the fact that your wide receivers aren't getting open, I think yeah, I'm sure you remember last year, Hendon Hooker. It was rare to remember a time in the pocket where he held the ball for more than two or three seconds. And you've seen Joe Milton make stuff happen with his legs, but I feel like the offensive line can continue to communicate a little better, take a step forward. And then special teams has been all over the place in the first two games, I think against Virginia, they kicked two or three kickoffs out of bounds they kicked one against Austin Peay. When you get into SEC play, 10 yards is a big deal. Whenever you go from a touchback or shanking a kickoff and then they have Jackson Ross, a punter from Australia who's shown that you know, he can be a left footed rugby style punter that is virtually impossible to catch. But he's also shown with his right foot that he can shake it and get a 13 yard pawn, or I think it was a 17 yard punt against Virginia. So when you get into SEC play, you can't have those little things happen because they just keep piling on and piling on. And then before you know it, Florida's won the field position battle, and they can win the game with that.”

Who has the advantage: Tennessee’s defensive line or Florida’s offensive line?

Jarreau: “You know, that's a tough one because we haven't seen Tennessee's defensive front seven against a real solid team. I mean, they played Virginia, which is a power five opponent where they're probably as close to FCS as you can get for a power five opponent at this point. But they do some weird stuff on the defensive line. They’ve got Omarr Norman-Lott, who they got out of Arizona State from the transfer portal, and then Omari Thomas in the middle who are getting pushed in the middle and it seems they're like strategy, I guess on non-third down plays is you get pushed up the middle and then your quarterback has to back up and you run to the edge rushers and you've had James Pearce Jr., Roman Harrison, those guys firing off the edge. You've all seen Aaron Beasley veteran linebacker getting in on the pass rush game getting two sacks against Austin Peay right up the middle unblocked. So I think they should have success I feel like at this point they would have success against any team it's just a matter of how much success and when and something you'll see on Saturday in Florida fans will see as well as when they get they want to force Florida or any team in the third and long situations. And then they bring out what they call a rabbit package. And it's four defensive ends on the offensive line. They just try to overload them with speed and we've seen that have success because obviously you're in third and long you know third and 10th and 11. You're throwing the ball and all of a sudden you've got four or five guys who are massive and you know can probably run 4.5s forty times running actually you know, it gets very chaotic very quick. The only thing is they're not tested in the run game as much. I mean they haven't seen a true running back. Austin Peay ran a lot of option and the quarterback got free several times for long run so I don't think Graham Mertz will tuck it and run in the option as much but Florida does have those talented running backs that could find some success against Tennessee's defensive front if they’re not careful.”

What could be the deciding factor in this matchup?

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Jarreau: “I still would see Tennessee in a track meet. So if we're talking like 30s, 40s, I could see Tennessee pulling away. I really think I mean, it's the cookie-cutter SEC answer, but I think the line of scrimmage will be your deciding factor in this game. What team can run the ball can Jaylen Wright, who is on pace to have the best season for a Tennessee running back in history, obviously against Austin Peay in Virginia. But can he continue that production against Florida he doesn't need to put up 115 yards but if he can get, you know, 80 or 90 yards and be effective on his carries against Florida. Can the offensive line be effective against Florida? Can the defensive front stop Florida has run because I think if they can stop Florida running and then all of a sudden this game is on Graham Mertz I see Tennessee having a lot higher chances of victory making Graham Mertz throw the ball around to Ricky Pearsall and some other wide receivers versus if Florida can run the ball all night. So it's a basic easy answer. But I would say that you know, the line of scrimmage, whoever can win at the line of scrimmage and win this game, and I would give the battle on the defensive side to Tennessee. I don't know what the running game will look like. They've looked very effective against Austin Peay, and Virginia. I know I keep saying that, but we haven't seen them against an opponent of any strength or size or really anybody who could put up a fight. So when Joe Milton was having accuracy issues against Austin Peay, obviously the easy answer is just to hand it off as an FCS opponent. That's what they did. They had success. Can they do that against Florida if Joe Milton has issues in the Swamp, that’s to be determined.”

Could you see the skill group and wide receivers taking advantage of the Gators’ young secondary?

Jarreau: “Yeah, and I don't think necessarily, the problem was they weren't getting open as much because they were open, it's just like, they were getting hit in the hands or one play comes to mind was Bru McCoy on a post route. And Joe, Milton hit him. I mean, it was a little behind him, but it still hit him in the hands and he dropped it was one of those balls, like you probably couldn't catch and run. But you know, you can still catch it in the middle of the field, those little plays, and I mean, it would have been for like 15, 20 yards, those things are the things that the skill positions really need to improve on and work on. Austin Peay played really, really really soft coverage, which forced Joe Milton to throw underneath. We saw the same thing from Clemson. I'd be willing to bet we'll see the same thing from Florida where you basically give up the 10, 15 yard pass to protect over the top and we saw the wide receivers, dropped a pass, or Joe Milton over throw the pass. So I would hope that wide receivers start catching the balls a little bit more obviously in SEC environment, it's going to be very, very loud. I mean, you're talking prime time in the Swamp, Florida's probably looking for that revenge factor. You need them to make the catches when the ball is hitting them in the hands. And Joe Milton, yes he’s had accuracy issues, but he's made good decisions we haven't seen him throw into triple coverage and he hasn't thrown an interception. I want to say he's only thrown a handful of interceptions at Tennessee. I want to say the numbers two or three in all of his passing attempts. So he's made good decisions his eyes are in the right spot nine times out of 10. It's just once he throws it A is it going to be on target and then B is your wide receiver going to catch it and the wide receiver catching was not a question mark until we got into Virginia and they weren't catching the ball because in Fall practice there was not hands issues from your starters obviously young guys, you know freshmen they're gonna have issues but your guys your Bru McCoy’s, your Squirrel White’ you know those guys were making the catches, your Rmael Keyton's, they were making the catches in practice. They made the catches last year. In the first two games, something is off. They're just not in sync. And I feel like going into an SEC place. I mean, they had a team meeting on Sunday, and they're either gonna have to fix it or not mean put the freshmen in because somebody's going to catch the ball. I mean, they're open. Josh Heupel’s scheme, you saw with Jalin Hyatt last year. The wide receivers don't have to do very much except run the route and they're going to be schemed open. So just make the catch. And if they don't make the catch on Saturday night, and I think this team has probably a lot bigger issues than we're talking about right now.”

Finally, how do you see the game playing out and what is the final score?

Jarreau: “Yeah, so our score prediction in our edition that printed today, I think I said 30-21 or 27-21, something like that. I see Tennessee winning, I think it's gonna be very, very ugly. But at the end of the day, I think at least if Joe Milton is not hitting his passes, they’ll just go back to the screen game. And you just let the athletes work. And like you said a young secondary. I mean, if you get a guy like Squirrel White the ball in his hands or even a running back out of the backfield on a screen, just let them work, Tennessee will score, I don't think they'll get shut out or anything crazy. I think they can score four touchdowns. I think the defense can hold Florida to three, I think the run game from Florida won't be as effective as it was in its first two games against Tennessee's defensive front. That's the whole point of their defensive front that they've improved as to stop SEC run games. So that's how I see it playing out I think, hopefully, I don't know if Joe Milton will make a jump this see this game. But at least if he still has accuracy issues, if wide receivers still have catching issues, I hope that they don't start as slow. If that makes sense, at least make the issue like against Austin Peay. I mean, all their issues are in the first and second quarter. But when you play Alabama, and you can't complete a pass in the first and second quarter, you're down 21 to nothing going into halftime. So make the issues less together, I guess kind of spread out the issues, run the ball a little bit more. And I think there'll be alright, you got to, especially in the Swamp, you have to kind of take the crowd out of it quick, which, honestly, like Utah did just drop a bomb on the first play, see what happens. And if you complete it, I mean, you take the Swamp out of it before the game even starts. So I think Tennessee would come out with a win. I don't think it'd be a very pretty game. It'll probably go down to the end. But I think they'll actually go back to back and get their first win in the Swamp since 2003."

No. 11 Tennessee: 30

Florida: 21

Contact Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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