KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - With Tennessee earning its first national ranking since 2008 and ESPN’s College GameDay heading to town, the excitement in the air at Rocky Top is palpable as the 23rd-ranked Vols get set to host No. 18 Florida on Saturday.
As his team begins its preparations for the Gators, UT head coach Derek Dooley made sure the players knew that they are deserving of all of the attention, but stressed the importance of not getting caught up in the hype and losing focus on what got them to this point, especially with such a talented opponent looming on the horizon.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Dooley said. “I told the team that they have earned the right to get some of the attention that they’ve been getting by how they’ve preformed the last couple of weeks and that’s good. That’s what we should get, but now we have to earn the right to continue getting it and earn the right to play well by how we prepare this week.”
As much as the Vols enjoy seeing their name in the national rankings, Dooley simply sees it as a byproduct of the process the program has followed. Instead of being satisfied with being ranked, the Big Orange will continue to plug away like it does every day.
“We have some basic program standards that we have kind of established that I think all the Tennessee fans expect,” Dooley said. “Certainly, at Tennessee we want to be in the top 25 like a hundred other teams, but you can’t be in it if you don’t keep winning. If you are focused on being on the top 25 and not what you need to do to be in the top 25, then you aren’t going to be in the top 25.”
Despite all of the extra media coverage and added excitement that comes with playing a heated rival at home on national television, Dooley expects his players will be able to handle the challenge.
“The preparation builds each day,” Dooley said. “It is so important that our team keeps its focus on what it needs to do to play well this week and not all of the external drama that is certainly going to be there.
“It depends on your level of maturity and your experience in that situation. This will be a little new for us but it’s good. I think our players will handle it fine. This is where you want to be. [Our players] didn’t come to Tennessee to not be in a big game, on a big stage on game day. That’s why they came here. It shouldn’t really have any impact on preparation, any impact on focus. The only impact it has is for the fans.”
BRODUS EARNS PROMOTION
After some early-season struggles, the Vols have made a change at the placekicker position with head coach Derek Dooley announcing that junior Derrick Brodus will handle the field goal duties against Florida.
While Dooley remains confident in the talent and ability of Michael Palardy, he felt that Brodus had performed well enough in both practice and last week’s game against Georgia State to earn the opportunity.
“I still believe in Mike but he has some things he needs to work through and Derrick has certainly earned the right to be out there,” Dooley said. ““It’s really no different than the other positions, it is performance-based and it is my responsibility as the coach. If I feel like another guy is more deserving and gives us a better chance to get through the game then that’s what we are going to do. I don’t know if it is the right one. We’ll see, time will tell.
Brodus, who made national headlines last season after being called off his couch just hours before UT’s game against MTSU and making a field goal and two extra points, has impressed Dooley with his consistency, poise and accuracy during practice. He also made his second career field goal, a 25-yarder, against Georgia State last week.
“He’s made every kick every time he’s been out there and he kicks it high,” Dooley said. “He has a nice calm about him but we’ll see.”
IT ALL STARTS UP FRONT
The Tennessee football players know and head coach Derek Dooley emphasized that making big plays on defense all starts up front.
The four interceptions that UT had against NC State and the one that was added last Saturday against Georgia State were all thanks in part to pressure on the quarterback.
"I think it is fair to say, you look at the top defenses in the country and it starts up front," said Dooley. "You look at the teams that have consistently played pretty good defense in our league over the last three or four years and it starts up front. It is not just that they have a few guys up front that are good. It is that they are deep, they are able to go four quarters, and they are able to make game changing plays in the second half."
Against Georgia State, the Vols made those game-changing plays, hurrying quarterback Ben McLane 10 times. McLane found himself on the ground even more than that throughout the game.
This was all thanks to the pressure up front. A pressure that the Vols hope to carry into their game with Florida.
"We watched film and [Jeff Driskel] is a pretty good mobile quarterback," said Marlon Walls. "He can move around a little bit and that makes our job a little harder. We have to keep him in the pocket. I think the best way is to go after him. If you sit back and let the guy throw the ball around, he is a pretty good passer too. Our philosophy is to go out there and get him and try our best to get after that guy."
JACK linebacker Jacques Smith believes that the pressure will be even more turned up against Florida than it already has been this season.
"I know Sal is probably going to be throwing a lot of things at us to get us there," said Smith. "We're just ready to play sound defense every single play and be disciplined this week."
Another factor that will add to the intensity of the game is the return of College GameDay to Rocky Top. The players know that the loud crowd will be a huge element in bull rushing the offensive line.
"It's exciting to have College GameDay come to your town," said Smith. "I knew the stadium was going to be packed regardless, it's Florida-Tennessee, it's tradition. We're just excited. It's just another stage for us to show our talent and how good we are as a team. We definitely have matured."
But the players also know that they can't lose focus amidst all the hoopla on campus.
"It doesn't mean nothing if we don't go out there and handle our business," said Walls. "As quick as you are in the top-25, you can be out of it even quicker. This game is important to us because over the year's we haven't done so well against Florida and this team right here we are driven right now. Not because of the rankings and College GameDay. Because it's Florida. We are looking forward to bringing the tradition back. We are prepared for a tough game and we are ready for it. It is going to be an exciting thing and it is a challenge for us to compete against a pretty good team. We are excited."
The Vols have lost seven-straight to Florida. And you better believe they are all ready for that streak to snap.
Since last year we wanted to beat them," said Maurice Couch, "and as a team we know what we have to do. We have a different mindset from last year and we are more united as a team. We have to practice hard and go in and execute our plan."
Sticking to the game plan will be the key to success for the Vols, who have slipped a few times in years past.
"For the last few games [against Florida], it has not been what they were doing it was what we were doing," said Walls. "There were guys making mistakes and we all weren't on the same page. I think we are more on that page this year. With this defense it takes time and we are starting to get that down as far as looking for the calls, knowing what to do and knowing certain signals. We are getting better at that aspect and as long as we get that down we can be a pretty good defense. We are moving in that direction."
GAME TIME SET FOR AKRON
Tennessee will play under the lights at Neyland Stadium once again next week as the start time for its Sept. 22 home game against Akron has been set for 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
The contest, which will be televised on CSS, will be UT’s second 7:30 p.m. start this season and third night game in 2012. The Vols are 1-0 all-time vs. Akron, having won the lone meeting between the schools, 52-9, in 1989 at Neyland Stadium.
REINFORCEMENTS ON THE WAY
With linebackers Curt Maggitt (toe) and Herman Lathers (shoulder) still listed as questionable and day-to-day, the Vols got a much needed boost this week as redshirt freshman Christian Harris is set to officially return to the practice field.
While he may not quite be ready to contribute on game day as he returns from a torn ACL, Harris provides the Vols with a little more depth at a critical position.
“Christian Harris will be activated,” Dooley said. “I’m not saying he is going to play or be ready, but he is now out there and working with the defense. We need him because we are so thin at inside linebacker.”
Vol fans can also expect to see another new face suited up against Florida on Saturday as Alton “Pig” Howard will don the number two for the Orange and White for the first time.
The offensive playmaker will likely become the 10th true freshman to hit the field for UT this season as he will get an opportunity at wide receiver.
“Pig Howard is activated and we’ll see how much we can get out of him,” Dooley said. “We need him, especially in the slot.”
JUNIOR LB JACQUES SMITH
(On intensity of Florida game compared to year’s past)
“Definitely, simply because they’re ranked. GameDay is coming. We’ve just been looking forward to this moment all summer. We know we could get to this position and now we’re here. We just have to handle business.”
(On it being an exciting time to be a Vol)
We’re finally ranked. It was one of my college goals. I’m pretty sure a lot of guys on the team wanted to be ranked. It’s such an accomplishment now. It’s something we’re not taking for granted. We’re not looking at any number, we’re not looking at ESPN coming to the game. We’re worried at Florida and how we prepare for them and what we do when we get out there on the field on Saturday.”
(On if the team beats Florida)
“It’ll be a bigger accomplishment. Just to be here and 2-0 going into it again for the second consecutive year. Honestly, I think we have a chance. It hasn’t happened in a long time. Fans believe now and we definitely have something for them to believe in and we’ll show it on Saturday.”
(On adjusting to his new position)
“It’s definitely second nature. I don’t really have to think as much. The only thing I have to worry about is fundamentals. Doing what I need to do and my specific things like that.”
RS JUNIOR DL MAURICE COUCH
(On external factors)
“No. I think we are doing a good job not letting that get in the way. That is a big plus, we have older guys keeping the younger guys level headed. Everything is going to be good and I am pretty sure game day won’t be a distraction.”
(On his ability and strength)
“Yes. I have been inconsistent with my weight from last year because I was dropping since the beginning of the season. Staying in the weight room, eating right, and staying in shape. I feel good and if we want to be a top defense we have to run to the ball.”
(On correcting mistakes)
“They put the ball on the ground 7 or 8 times and we only come up with one of them. That was a big deal. Coaches didn’t really like that so that is something we have to do and as a defense we know what is lacking and if we do the same thing we could lose the game.”
(On being back in the top 25)
“It was great. Hearing from the last time Tennessee and the game day but it’s motivation. We don’t want that to be a distraction. All of our mindset is to go into the film room and work hard and get ready for Florida.”
JUNIOR DL MARLON WALLS
(On Florida running back Mike Gillislee)
“He is a pretty good back. He is a very shifty guy. If you don’t come correct he will make you miss. We play against good backs though all the time in this league. We want to keep him from running downhill. But we are just going to out and hit guys. It is competition. We are excited for another Saturday to go out there and prove what we could do.”
(On challenging each other)
“I think it is a little more intense because on this team we have high expectations for each other. It is not more or less for the rankings. Since the offseason we have challenged each other, we knew games like this were going to come up, and you just have to show up.”
(On the challenge of the game this week)
“We love the challenge. That is the reason why you come to the University of Tennessee. We are equipped with guys that have some heart. We aren’t backing down. I know personally I am excited and I am pretty sure the rest of the defense is. Whenever a team challenges like that, you have to step up.”
SOPHOMORE DB BRIAN RANDOLPH
(On not getting too emotional/intense)
“Especially against Florida, it’s a big rivalry for us. Before the game we try not to get to hype so we don’t get worn down before [game time]. We just try to stay mellow, stay in our playbook, not buy into the hype, and just stay focused.”
(On difference in atmosphere)
“I can tell the intensity is up. Everyone around the team is focused, no goofing around anymore. We all know what’s about to come, we all know that Saturday is coming so we’re just going to try to take the right steps to prepare for it.”
(On taking advantage of offseason/spring preparations)
“Yes sir, during the offseason we had a week for Florida. I think we may have had two weeks for Florida over the offseason, so we really wanted to prepare for game. Like in the offseason we dedicate a week working out to one team so now it’s the real thing.”
RS SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On beating Florida as a senior)
“It’d be big. I mean since I got here the whole Florida week has been big. Guys in the locker room are saying they want to be the first to beat Florida, because they haven’t done it. I don’t really remember the last time we beat Florida, but hopefully we can get the W this weekend.”
(On biggest impression of the Gators)
“They capitalize on all of our mistakes. Every time we made a mistake here and there, the main thing is special teams. I think almost every year we played, we made a big special teams play on them. So this week in practice, even today, we put in punt, punt returns, Coach Dooley was out there screaming and hollering. So I think we’re going to get the job done this week.”
(On being recruited by Florida)
“Coming out of high school, I went to the Florida camps. I was recruited by Coach Meyer there. They are a pretty good program, but fortunately I ended up here though. I considered all the SEC teams. Coming out of high school, I heard the Florida camp was one of the biggest camps. I just wanted to go out there and showcase some talent.”
(On being a Tennessee Volunteer)
“It’s real exciting. Like you said, we’re 2-0, we’ve got the Gators coming into town, it’s a big game. I know probably every seat in Neyland is going to be filled then. So to have that type of atmosphere is going to be big for the team and me.”
RS FRESHMAN OL KYLER KERBYSON
(On beating Florida in 2004)
“I want all the fans to be there. I want it to be a Knoxville thing, not just a team thing. It’s been a long time since we beat them, and it feels like now is the time.”
(On his experience watching the 2004 Florida game)
“I was about 9 or 10 years old. I remember the game; it was a long time ago. I just remember how pepped up it was, and how amazing it was to win, but then the next eight years of losing, thinking, ‘What’s going on? How are we going to get out of this drought?’ Now we have the team and we have the capability of doing that.”
(On growing up in Knoxville)
“My parents had season tickets. I went to five or six games growing up before I got recruited. It’s always been a thing in my household that UT is who you cheer for.”
(On the excitement of this week)
“It was exciting to start the season off at the Georgia Dome against N.C. State; we had eight months to think about it. Now, this week, we’re ranked, Game Day is coming. It’s a whole different feeling. And it’s against Florida, our SEC opener. It’s always the biggest game for us, and to come out there and be able to win against them would be huge.”
SOPHOMORE TB DEVRIN YOUNG
(On being ranked, GameDay, and playing Florida)
“There’s a lot of excitement, but the excitement is just the competition. We’re not worried about the ranking. We’re not worried about the records. We’re just worried about playing a hard game.”
(On Florida’s defense)
“They played really well against A&M; A&M played really well against them. Florida just happened to pull it out in the end. We’ve seen their strengths and weaknesses on the film, and we’re just going to try to exploit that.”
(On running game being important in this series)
“We’re going to really have to establish the running game. The whole country knows about our receiving corps by now, so we need to be there to back them up and take the pressure off of them and Tyler Bray.”
(On how players see GameDay)
“It’s fun. We wake up and see GameDay everywhere. It’s fun to have them at home. We’re just going to show up and show out for them.”
SOPHOMORE TB MARLIN LANE
(On competition among backs)
“Not necessarily [more pressure] it’s just when it’s your turn to get out there, just make sure you do everything not perfect but at the best extent. Just get out there and do what you can and keep the tempo going.”
(On backs thinking how rushing could affect game)
“Not as much, but yeah. We always want to average five yards per game, no matter who it is. It’s just that now that we have a SEC opener, we want to get out there and prove our running game will be first this year instead of last.”
(On the Florida front seven)
“I believe they have a great front seven, but we have a great offensive line too. So we are just going to get out there, and whoever brings the most contact out on the snap of the ball is whose going to win.”
(On the Tennessee offensive line)
“Yea, it seems like each week they get better. Just going out there and when the out hits the defense, just strive for positive plays.”
JUNIOR OL JAMES STONE
(On being a Top 25 team)
“I feel like that would really help the team confidence. Everybody on the team- offense, defense, special teams, that would really help boost the moral. Not just because it’s a ranked team, but because it’s an SEC team and that’s something that were going out to do. Were trying to do well in our conference this year.”
(On improving the running game)
“I feel like were better, but we still have a long ways to go. I feel like we continue to work on that every week in practice. Every day we go out there, put our pads on, we’re working on that and that’s always going to be a point on emphasis this year.”
(On passing game)
“I feel like they complement each other. They have to be able to respect our ground game in order for us to have an efficient pass and protect.”
(On Florida’s defensive line)
“I feel like they have a great defensive line. They’re explosive when they come off the line. I feel like it’s going to be a great challenge to us. It’s going to be a great game. It’s what you play the game for.”