KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (school release) -- For the first time since 2003, Tennessee will travel to Gainesville with a perfect 2-0 record to take on the Gators in each team’s SEC opener Saturday. Although Florida has won the last six meetings, that stat is irrelevant to the 2011 Vols.
“It is only relevant if the team makes it relevant,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “I’ve said it all along: you can’t be held hostage to the past. We have a bunch of different guys who didn’t play in (last year’s) game playing now. So for the bulk of our team, this is the first time they are starting against Florida and guess what – they have a lot of new guys too. That stuff doesn’t matter unless you make it matter. If you make it matter, it matters.”
What matters for Tennessee is not letting Saturday’s contest determine its entire season, win or lose.
“We could win down there and then go get shellacked the next six weeks in a row or we could lose down there and then go play great six weeks,” Dooley said. For me, I’m not like that. I don’t believe in ‘If we win this, we are going to get hot and take off or if we lose, the season’s over.’ It is the next game and we are going to go play it to win.
“We are going to go do everything we need to do to try to win the game and if we don’t, we are going to try to learn from it and try to get better the next week.”
After enjoying the comfort of Neyland Stadium en route to a pair of early victories, the Vols will play on the road for the first time in 2011 and will have to adjust -- even to the way the food tastes.
“Everything is different when you go on the road,” Dooley said. “It will be the first time these guys get on a plane for some of them. All of the routine is different. They won’t be sleeping at the same hotel they are used to on Friday night. The meals are going to taste a little different. There will be a bus ride in the morning going to the game.”
While the weekend’s setup will be different, the focus is on how they’ll perform in front of 88,548 fans that are cheering against them -- not for them.
“The bigger thing on the road is when the other team is playing good and the crowd gets loud, we are going to have to work on things we have never worked on and don’t have a lot of game-ready operation on it like silent snap counts and those kinds of things,” Dooley said. “It is going to be a challenge. All you can do – you have to go down there, you can’t be scared and you have to be prepared mentally. You can’t be held hostage to anything that has happened in the past. That’s how we are going to approach it.”
BRAY WALKING THE WALK
It is often said that actions speak louder than words. By that standard, sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray doesn’t have to say a thing after the best opening two weeks by a UT signal-caller in school history with 698 yards.
“It starts with his play and it helps if you are going to be a leader, being able to walk the walk is important,” Dooley said. “He has certainly played two very good football games.
“I think secondly that goes with that is he has put a big investment in trying to be good. You see it on the practice field, you see it in the time he’s putting in outside of practice. When you are putting a lot of investment and you are committing yourself to being good and you are playing good then you have the ability to affect others in a positive way.”
Bray earned SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors after dismantling the Cincinnati secondary Saturday. The 6-6 sophomore set a school record (min. 30 atts.), completing 82.9 percent of his passes (34-of-41) for a career-high 405 yards, the fourth most in UT annals.
Additionally, the slinger threw four touchdowns, extending his school-record and current SEC-best streak of consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes to eight. He also rushed for a score, giving him the only five-touchdown effort in the SEC this season.
But this season has a long way to go.
“I don’t want to put a measuring stick on what he is doing right now,” Dooley said. “It is not a time for reflection. We are still in the war so we don’t want to sit back and reflect on how we are playing because you have to play the next week. I will tell you if he exceeded expectations at the end of the year, but he is playing good.”
Coach Dooley’s orange slacks have been the talk of the town the first two weeks of the season. The big question now is whether they will hit the road to Gainesville this weekend or not. If it were up to the players, it would be a no-brainer.
“We are 2-0 with them so I’d say probably so,” senior running back Tauren Poole said. “We’ll see. Coach will probably come out with something else, but only time will tell.”
Poole wasn’t the only player who thought the pants were a hit either, as both senior linebacker Austin Johnson and sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith offered up their support as well.
“I think they are awesome,” Johnson said. “I saw the jumbotron video with them and laughed a little bit. I think they’re cool and original and I like how he (Coach Dooley) brings them out and jokes about them as well. I think he should wear them every week.”
“I think Coach Dooley should take the orange pants down to Gainesville,” Smith said. “Heck, I think he should wear them until we lose.”
When pressed about the travel itinerary for his orange pants, however, Dooley was a little more coy about his intentions.
“I don’t know. That’s the last thing I’m worried about. I can assure you the orange slacks aren’t the reason we’re winning.”
That’s why you practice and it’s why you compete. We’ve got to keep busting out butts through practice and move forward.”
O-Line Rising to the Challenge
After having some difficulty generating a consistent running game in the season opener against Montana, the Tennessee offensive line was challenged to do a better job.
From all accounts, they were able to rise to that challenge, leading senior running back Tauren Poole to his seventh career 100-yard rushing game and keeping Bray from being sacked even once in 41 passing attempts.
“I think they took the challenge,” Poole said. “Coach Dooley and Coach Hiestand challenged them and told them we have to better. We have to get the run game better. They took it in. They were focused all week. They were committed to getting the run game better. They told me just to run behind them and that they were going to make holes. They did that on Saturday. We have to continue to progress as a football team and as an offense and we will be even better.”
According to sophomore offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, the key to improvement was simple.
“Communication,” James said. “That’s the one thing we want to focus on as an offensive line. Communicating and making sure we are all on the right guys. I feel like we did a lot better job against Cincinnati. Coach Hiestand always tells us in film, when our five guys are on people, this kid behind us, number eight (Tyler Bray) is going to make plays. And the people around us like Justin Hunter, Da’Rick (Rogers) and Mychal Rivera. We have a lot of playmakers out there and we try to put it on our backs. If we can leave (Bray) untouched, he is going to make us a play.”
The Vols haven’t had to rely on their running game much yet with Bray’s ability to throw the ball around the field, but that could change this weekend at Florida.
“I think we’re going to need a running game,” Poole said. “Florida has a great secondary. All the guys are good from corner to strong safety to free safety. Their coverage is going to be phenomenal. We’re going to have to run the football. I’m going to have to be on top of my game. The offensive line is going to have to be on top of its game. We have to get prepared to run the football. We have to create some mismatches all over the field. We have a chance to. We just have to take advantage of it when we can.”
Much like last week, the Tennessee offensive line will be faced with a challenge, only this time it will come from the opposing team rather than the coaching staff. As they proved last week though, they aren’t backing down.
“Obviously this is going to be a big test for us,” Bullard said. “We’re going in to a different type of defense than we normally go against. We just have to watch the film and get ready to play. We’re extremely confident as an offensive line because we have a lot of talent and depth as you guys can see, so it will be a good challenge and we’re excited to take it on.”
One of Florida’s biggest advantages year in and year out is its speed, which has helped the Gators average a balanced 490 yards of offense through two games.
Florida’s two leading rushers - Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps - exemplify the word to the fullest.
“Speed, speed, speed,” Dooley reiterated when asked about the duo. “Fast and elusive. And they use them for their return game, they use them to block punts – they are all over the field. They are faster than everybody out there. They have playmaking ability, so that have that competitive character and want to make the impact play of the game. When you combine those two things – watch out.”
While UT will need to know where Rainey and Demps are at all times, it needs to be prepared for anything.
“They’ve shown a wide variety of things,” defensive lineman Daniel Hood said. “They’ve shown pro style, elements of the spread and gator (wildcat) formation. It’s going to be a tough game. They looked really good in the two games we’ve seen already so it’s going to be a good battle and their running backs are incredible.”
For the Vols, it helps that they have a few fast guys of their own to practice against.
“They are definitely fast guys,” linebacker Austin Johnson said. “We’ve seen just as fast guys verse some great running backs in practice. We’re going to have a great week of practice and I prepare like any other week. This is the best team we’ll see this week.”
Sophomore defensive back Brent Brewer
(On having confidence Saturday at Florida)
“The challenge is to not panic, just to go out there and believe in your talent. We have to go out there and do what we know that we can do.”
(On the Florida game being a measuring stick)
“We will definitely see how good we are this week. I believe we are good. We just have to communicate and get everybody on the same page.”
Sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith
(On what the Florida game means to him)
“The Tennessee-Florida rivalry to me means a chance to go to the SEC championship. The last time we beat Florida (2004), we know where Tennessee ended up.”
Senior linebacker Austin Johnson
(On the importance of Tuesday’s practice)
“We (as leaders) set the standard each and every day. They (the young guys) look to us to see how that standard is supposed to be set, and what the tempo is supposed to be like. If we come out on Tuesday knowing what’s going on with a lot of intensity, then those guys will follow.”
(On the importance of Saturday’s game vs. Florida)
“This is a huge game for us. If we win this game then it will give us a ton of confidence going farther into the season. I just think it all comes down to how we approach it. If we approach it like every other game, then we will play like every other game. As long as we come in and have a good week of practice, go out there and set the tone (in Gainesville) early, not letting the crowd or noise or anything distract us and come away victorious, then it’s going to set the tone and create some excitement around here.”
Sophomore defensive lineman Daniel Hood
(On the Tennessee-Florida rivalry)
“I grew up a Tennessee fan, so I know that coming into this game fourteen of the last sixteen games the team who runs the ball the most wins the game. So with that approach this week (as a D-Line) we definitely need to stop the run. Demps, Rainey, really the whole cast of skill players it’s going to be tough.”
(On facing Florida’s pro-style offense)
“I don’t think we’ll be as tired this week as we were last week. Cincinnati’s speed was really quick running plays so it will be nice this week being able to get calls in a little quicker and be able to see and line up better.”