KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s defense is much better than people think, and the Vols’ offense lacks physicality and continuity.
That’s the starting point for assessing Saturday’s SEC East Division showdown between the No. 23-ranked Vols and the No. 24-ranked Florida at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Gainesville (TV: CBS).
A series of injuries on the offensive line limited scrimmage opportunities in August, and then the Vols lost go-to receiver Jauan Jennings to a wrist injury.
Only 13 percent of Tennessee’s yardage against Florida in last season’s game between the teams was generated by returning players: WR Tyler Byrd (3 catches, 40 yards); TE Ethan Wolf (1 catch, 20 yards) and WR Josh Smith (1 catch, 5 yards).
Last week, slot receivers Smith, Byrd and Latrell Williams were sidelined against Indiana State with various ailments. They’ll play this week, but their timing with first-year starter Quinten Dormady probably won’t be as sharp as it would have been without the missed practice and game time.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, the SEC office in Birmingham uses the 1993 schedule model and has the Vols and Gators playing this key division rivalry game at the start of each league slate.
Here’s a look at more of the good, the bad and the unknowns for Tennessee this week.
• Tennessee has not shown its offense to this point under first-year coordinator Larry Scott, in the sense that the Vols have built several tendencies they’re likely to break Saturday. That could mean some big plays early before Florida can adjust.
• Tailback John Kelly is as tough as they come, the only SEC player to lead his team in rushing yards and receptions. The Gators don’t know the junior from Detroit, as he had neither a carry nor a catch in last year’s 38-28 Tennessee victory.
• Receiver Marquez Callaway has been all the rage with five catches for 152 yards and 3 TDs through two games — not bad for a player who didn’t start the opener at Georgia Tech and had just one catch for 13 yards as a freshman last season.
• Senior Evan Berry has proven himself the most elite kick return man in the nation the past two seasons, but freshman Ty Chandler stepped up with Berry out last week and returned the opening kick 91 yards for a touchdown.
• Dormady is confident heading down to The Swamp and says he’s ready to make big plays with his feet if needed. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano showed enough talent last week that he’s a viable option if the offense bogs down too much.
• Junior defensive tackle Shy Tuttle returned from the knee injury he suffered last October to play limited snaps last week and is expected to see more significant action Saturday. Tuttle is the Vols’ most athletic interior lineman.
• Tennessee receivers and tight ends have had eight dropped passes through two games, and that has been in ideal weather conditions. Saturday’s forecast calls for rain.
• Vols left tackle Drew Richmond returned from a suspension last week and did not look sharp, allowing an Indiana State edge rusher to get past him and deliver a hard shot on Guarantanto. Florida’s defensive front is significantly better.
• Tennessee is playing its third game in 13 days, a statistic that’s hard not to appreciate considering the Vols’ recent rash of injuries Tight end Eli Wolf (ankle) and cornerback Justin Martin (shoulder) left last week’s game with injuries and didn’t return.
• Tennessee is missing its top two linebackers for a second straight season against Florida, with Darrin Kirkland out for the season with a knee injury and Austin Smith still out with a knee ailment. The Gators will look to exploit the Vols’ weakest defensive position group.
• The Vols haven’t shown they can generate a pass rush or push the pocket without the benefit of a blitz. The defensive tackle play has been, at best, adequate through two games.
• Only 27 of the 70 Tennessee players on the travel squad have played at The Swamp. It’s as intimidating of a road atmosphere as there is in the SEC, and it’s hard to know how young players will respond on their first road trip.
• Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has yet to show any blitz packages or deviate from vanilla game plans, but will exotic blitzes, shifts and scheme variation be enough to disrupt the most talented offense the Vols will have seen to date?
• Tennessee’s offensive line has struggled at times in the first two games, and now its facing a salty front four on the road, where communication can be a problem at The Swamp.
• The Vols don’t have much in the way of experienced receivers, and they’ve yet to be tested by the sort of press man coverage Florida’s talented secondary plays. Can Tennessee’s young wideouts get loose? If not, it will throw off Dormady’s timing.
• Dormady says he can extend plays with his feet and scramble for yardage when necessary, but to what extent? The junior quarterback could be under more pressure than ever to make split-second decisions on throwing into tight windows, or running for the first down markers.
• Freshman Ty Chandler has proven to be one of the most dangerous weapons on offense, and it seems likely he’ll be on the field the same time as Kelly sooner or later, used as a receiver out of the backfield or the slot. Is Chandler ready for that role yet?
• Sophomore linebacker Daniel Bituli has been one of the most impressive young players early this season, but Bituli has not been tested in space. Shoop has said he will be the middle linebacker option when the Vols go to the nickel defense.
• Junior Rashaan Gaulden is the most dangerous player on the field now that Kirkland is out, but where will Gaulden be playing? Gaulden, No. 7, has played corner and nickel, but he’s capable of walking up into an outside linebacker role or playing safety. Keep an eye on where he’s lined up — if Florida is smart, it will, too.
OUT: OLB Austin Smith; WR Jauan Jennings, DB Baylen Buchanan; TE Eli Wolf; MLB Darrin Kirkland Jr.; OT Chance Hall; OT K’Rohjn Calbert; WR Jacquez Jones, Todd Kelly Jr.
QUESTIONABLE: KR Evan Berry
PROBABLE: WR Josh Smith, WR Tyler Byrd; WR Latrell Williams; CB Justin Martin; OT Marcus Tatum