Vols Excited for Gators Challenge

Vols Excited for Challenging SEC Opener in The Swamp

FootballSeptember 20, 2021
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee has begun prep for its first road game this season as a trip to Gainesville for a showdown with No. 11 Florida awaits this Saturday night as the Vols open SEC play in the Swamp.

Head coach Josh Heupel took the podium on Monday afternoon to talk about this week’s challenge against a talented and physical Gators team coming off a close loss to top-ranked Alabama.

“I think they’re well coached in all three phases of the game. They make you beat them,” Heupel said when asked about Florida. “Obviously, their ability to run the football on offense is a huge part, top-five in the country in rush offense. Defensively, I thought they were physical, tied in all three levels together throughout the course of the day (vs. Alabama). Defensive line was very disruptive.

“They make you beat them, and just watching the game from the other day, obviously had an opportunity for a two-point play at the end to tie it up. It’s a really good football team. Our guys are excited about that challenge.”

For some of UT’s players, Saturday’s contest will mark their first SEC game and first road game. It will also be the Vols’ first road contest in front of a capacity crowd since the 2019 season. Senior defensive back Alontae Taylor talked about the importance of going into the game with the right mindset and playing consistently for four quarters.

“As far as going into this game, mindset wise just have to be consistent (and) play physical. It’s going to be a physical game all four quarters, so just to come out, be consistent, play physical, match their intensity (and) match the energy. It’s going to be a night game, ESPN, seven o’clock, the stadium’s going to be crazy, so just come in ready to play.”

Heupel also touched on the importance of communication in all three phases of the game as Tennessee prepares for its first game away from Neyland Stadium this year.

“Obviously, the week of preparation is going to be really important, paying attention to the details. You get on the road, communication is going to be critical in all three phases of the game, something that offensively is going to be critical in particular. Looking forward to the challenge.”

Saturday’s game will be played in prime time with kickoff slated for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Joe Tessitore (PxP), Greg McElroy (analyst) and Katie George (sideline) will be on the call.

The full video and transcript from Heupel’s Monday press conference along with select player quotes can be found below.

Heupel Full Transcript

Opening statement…
“Obviously everybody in the building’s excited (for the) opportunity to start conference play. Obviously know the level of competition’s going to rise this week. Looking forward to the challenge going down there on the road, first road game for us as a program here. Obviously, the week of preparation is going to be really important, paying attention to the details. You get on the road, communication is going to be critical in all three phases of the game, something that offensively is going to be critical in particular. Looking forward to the challenge. Guys came into the building today, had an opportunity to watch the video with them, get some work on the grass, and (we’re) ready to get going here.”

On what stands out from the challenge presented by Florida…
“I think they’re well coached in all three phases of the game. They make you beat them. Obviously, their ability to run the football on offense is a huge part, top-5 in the country in rush offense. Defensively, I thought they were physical, tied in all three levels together throughout the course of the day (vs. Alabama). Defensive line was very disruptive. Special teams, they do a really good job as well. They make you beat them, and just watching the game from the other day, obviously had an opportunity for a two-point play at the end to tie it up. It’s a really good football team. Our guys are excited about that challenge.”

On the status of the quarterbacks…
“I never speak in hypotheticals. (Joe Milton III) got a little bit of work last week. We’ll find out where he is in particular Tuesday or Wednesday here, and see where we are at that point, as far as whether he’ll be able to play or not.”

On his assessment of sophomore DB Tamarion McDonald vs. Tennessee Tech…
“Big-time play that everybody could see with the interception. He did a great job on a pressure. I thought he was locked in to his assignments, played really well. That’s a young guy that played really well special teams wise. Given the opportunity the other day, got some more reps on the defensive side of the football. Love what he did.”

On the moving parts when it comes to sharpening the offense…
“When we’re playing with tempo, we want to be more efficient. That can be ball mechanics, it can be eyes, it can be alignment and assignment. All of those things can help us play quicker when we’re playing within our tempo. Even when we’re not playing in our tempo, the execution can be higher. You guys have seen opportunities that present themselves, in particular in the vertical pass game, that we have to start hitting. We’re capable of it. I’ve seen us do it. It’s time to go execute that on the field.”

On his impressions of Florida’s run defense…
“They’re big, long, athletic, violent. They disrupt the line of scrimmage, playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Structurally, I thought their second and third levels fit it extremely well. They tackled well for the most part, during the course of the other day (vs. Alabama). You do those things, it makes it tough to run the football.”

On what he’s been told about the importance of the Florida game…
“This is the biggest game on our schedule because it’s the next one. At the end of the day, we’re on a journey to become as good as we can as fast as we can. Love a lot of what we’ve done as a football team, how we’ve grown. This is the next challenge for us. We’ve got an opportunity to grow here during the week. Our process, our preparations got to be right. We’ve got to do the ordinary at a really high level in a big game like this against a really good football team.”

On senior DL Aubrey Solomon’s performance vs. Tennessee Tech…
“I thought Aubrey did some really good things. Obviously, the play behind the line of scrimmage, tackled, disruptive. He’s continued to get better as his investment inside of our building has become greater. Do things right outside the game, eventually good things happen if you keep competing. Thought he did a good job the other day.”

On what caused the run game to be not as successful…
“A little bit of everything. Offensive line needing to be cleaner, at times. At times it’s the running back, you know, could be pressing the line of scrimmage to help a double-team get to the second level. It could be recognizing, reading the right thing and getting to the space, a combination of all those things can help us be better.”

On the defense’s tackling through three games, particularly in the open field…
“It’s been solid over the course of the first three games. There’s times that the first guy hasn’t been clean and gotten a guy on the ground. I think relentless pursuit of the guy running the football is really important. It’s going to be important in this game that the first guy gets them down. If not, that effort and energy had got to be there, too.”

On Florida’s run-game success…
“I think they do a good job of spacing people out. The quarterback is a huge part of their run game too. The threat of it, and when he has the ball in his hands, he runs like a runner. He’s able to make the first guy miss and able to run through a tackle, too.”

On playing the first away game of the season…
“Fans have been awesome, three straight games, couple of noon kickoffs, I mentioned that after (the game). At the same time, as a competitor, it’s unique when you get an opportunity to go on the road. Great environment down there, night game, the guys are really excited and looking forward to it.”

On improving with vertical completions as the season progresses…
“As you get further in the number of times that we play, the more looks that you’ve seen, you continue to grow. Absolutely, I have seen that transpire in my career.”

On the performance of Velus Jones Jr….
“Thought he did a great job with the ball in his hands as a kick returner, punt returner and on the offensive side. Strong, competitive, made people miss, ran through tackles, executed at a pretty high level the other day. Excited about what we saw from him and expect that to continue moving forward.”

On the Tennessee-Florida rivalry…
“This is a big game. During the course of the summer I showed them highlights from these types of games, a couple of them were Florida games, highly competitive games. I think our kids understand and are excited about this game. It means something to them. The challenge for us is you don’t have to do something extraordinary, you’ve just got to do the ordinary at a really high level. You process and your preparation has got to get you to kickoff and that’s what we’ve been stressing to our bunch.”

On the challenges of preparing for playing two quarterbacks…
“What one of them may feel more comfortable with versus another. Overall schematically, there won’t be a ton of difference in what you do. You’re trying to design things that will be able to attack what you see structurally from them on the other side of the football.”

On the health status of offensive linemen Kingston Harris and Cade Mays
“Nothing finalized on those guys. I believe that we’ll have an opportunity for those guys to be with us on Saturday, and a couple of the guys that didn’t play, we feel like they’ll have a chance to be ready to go for this one, too.”

On what he saw from Byron Young in his first game…
“Athletic speed rush off the edge. I thought at times he affected the quarterback inside the pocket. I liked a lot of what we saw from him Saturday.”

On young players that took advantage of opportunities against Tennessee Tech…
“Yeah, we talked about one in Tamarion McDonaldChristian Charles same thing in the secondary. Offensive line wise, I thought Jeremiah Crawford did a really good job when he got the opportunity to be in there and compete.”

On translating practice and watching film into better execution offensively…
“Your practice habits, your preparation habits are all a part of that. Also just learning how to play with the fundamentals and technique that you’re asking. Some of it is communication up front. It’s all those things together. You watch it, you learn from it, you move on and your practice habits have to be right, too.”

On what makes Dan Mullen’s offenses able to produce at a high level…
“His track record of quarterback play, some in the pass game, but their ability to run the football too, has been a big part of what he’s done everywhere that he’s been. They’re top-5 in the country in rush offense. It starts for us defensively right there. Then you have to get them in some tougher third-down situations. We have to create some third-and-longs too.”

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