GAINESVILLE, Fla. — “Competitive depth” was one of the Tennessee football buzzwords the past offseason, and today, that will be put to the test.
The No 23-ranked Vols (2-0) face No. 24-ranked Florida (0-1) as a 4-point underdog at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, a venue the program has not won at since 2003.
The Gators have nine players suspended, including their top receiver (Antonio Callaway) and top running back (Jordan Scarlett). Florida also lost projected starting safety Marcell Harris in fall camp to a torn Achilles tendon.
Tennessee, however has seemingly upped the stakes in attrition poker. It was learned on Friday that senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. will be sidelined indefinitely by a knee injury.
The Vols have worked to avoid repeating last year’s injury woes, when 17 of 22 starters missed games banged up, resulting in an NCAA-high 52 missed starts on account of injuries.
Tennessee hired renowned NFL strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson in January to help minimize the injury risks moving forward.
The Los Angeles Rams, under Gullickson’s direction, had the fewest starts missed due to injuries in the NFL last season and ranked among the 10 best teams in the NFL for fewest missed starts due to injuries six of the last 10 years.
Gullickson has declared his task as “a 2-year rebuild” after inheriting a team that required 23 players to miss the Orange and White Game in April with injuries.
Indeed, Tennessee has had no less than 10 returning players undergo surgical procedures in the past calendar year — eight of whom will start or make key contributions in today’s game in The Swamp.
Coach Butch Jones said earlier this week that of the 70 Tennessee players making the trip to Florida, only 27 were dressed out for the Vols’ 2015 road game in Gainesville.
Here’s a look at the key Tennessee players ruled out for today’s game, and the “next man up” replacing each one:
SS Todd Kelly Jr. (16 career starts)
• Kelly led the Vols in tackles last season and tied for the team lead in interceptions despite playing with an undisclosed left knee injury first suffered in 2016 fall camp, the extent of which went undiagnosed. An MRI taken Thursday revealed Kelly has a knee issue that could potentially end his season and career, pending a second evaluation. Kelly, slowed by the knee, was part of a 3-safety rotation this season. The Knoxville native played more than 30 snaps in the opener and more than half of the snaps against Indiana State.
Next man up: If senior Evan Berry (hamstring, questionable) does not play today, true freshman Theo Jackson is in line to be called upon behind starting safeties Micah Abernathy and Nigel Warrior. Jackson, a 3-star recruit from Nashville, did not play in the opener and made his first career tackle last Saturday.
MLB Darrin Kirkland Jr. (17 career starts)
• Arguably Tennessee’s most talented defensive player, the 6-foot-1, 238-pounder first underwent knee surgery in June before suffering his season-ending injury in an Aug. 25 practice.
Next man up: Senior Colton Jumper (6-2, 229), a former walk-on, has been elevated to first team to replace Kirkland. Jumper started seven games last season after Kirkland and Jalen Reeves-Maybin went down with injuries in the second and third games of the 2016 season.
WR Jauan Jennings (16 career starts)
• Jennings is Tennessee’s leading returning receiver, best known for his Hail Mary catch vs. Georgia and game-changing 67-yard TD vs. Florida last year. Jennings suffered a wrist injury in the 42-41 double-overtime win over Georgia Tech on Sept. 4 and is out indefinitely.
Next man up: Sophomore Marquez Callaway could be making his first career start today after a blazing start off the bench the first two games. Callaway, who played in six games last season, making one catch for 13 yards in 2016. He has five catches for 152 yards and 3 TDs through two games this season.
OT Chance Hall (13 career starts)
Hall, a 6-4, 315-pound junior, was projected to start at right tackle this season, where he started in 2016 when healthy. A lingering knee injury was found to require the former Sporting News Freshman All-American to undergo season-ending surgery before the start of fall camp.
Next man up: Sophomore Marcus Tatum (6-6, 281) started at right tackle in place of Hall in the season-opening game, and last week against Indiana State, sixth-year senior Brett Kendrick played right tackle with redshirt sophomore Drew Richmond returning from a suspension to start at left tackle. Tatum and Richmond will compete to start opposite Kendrick moving forward.
OLB Austin Smith (one career start)
• Smith, a 6-3, 236-pound redshirt sophomore, was slated to start at strong side linebacker after missing the 2016 season on account of injury. Smith, who was also going to play end in pass-rush situations, suffered a knee injury in the Sept. 1 practice and is out indefinitely.
Next man up: Sophomore Daniel Bituli, who underwent a knee procedure in June and missed the start of fall camp, made his first career start against Georgia Tech. Bituli recorded 23 tackles against the Yellow Jackets, who ran the football an astonishing 86 times.
Full Tennessee injury report for Florida
OUT: OLB Austin Smith, DB Baylen Buchanan, TE Eli Wolf, MLB Darrin Kirkland Jr., OT Chance Hall, OT K’Rohjn Calbert, WR Jauan Jennings, WR Jacquez Jones
QUESTIONABLE: KR/S Evan Berry
PROBABLE : WR Josh Smith, WR Tyler Byrd, WR Latrell Williams, CB Justin Martin, OT Marcus Tatum