KNOXVILLE – In a place called “The Swamp,” Tennessee’s best chance for any sort of football footing will depend largely on what occurs in another aptly named location: the trenches.
The Vols (1-2) begin SEC play at No. 9 Florida (3-0) on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. (noon kickoff). The place has been hostile to all visitors but particularly treacherous for the Vols, who haven’t won there since 2003 and have won just twice in 16 visits dating back to 1977.
The UT team traveling there this season is greatly dependent upon youth and inexperience, as evidenced by 28 players making their debuts this season.
Of that group, 17 are true freshmen. UT coach Jeremy Pruitt singled out one of the newbies, freshman Henry To’o To’o, after last Saturday’s 45-0 victory over Chattanooga, saying the linebacker “has played as well as anybody” on defense during the first three games.
This demographic has been reflected by both lines. The position groups were major question marks at the season’s start and are no less intriguing when considering UT’s chances against the Gators.
The most crucial matchup arguably will Tennessee’s offensive line against Florida’s defensive front. Florida leads the nation in sacks with 16 (10 in the opener against Miami’s young line).
The Gators’ sack leader, Jabari Zuniga, suffered some sort of ankle/foot injury against Kentucky last Saturday and was unable to finish the game.
The Vols, meanwhile, debuted a new offensive line configuration against Chattanooga with K’Rojhn Calbert and freshman Darnell Wright manning the right side of the line at tackle and guard respectively. Brandon Kennedy started at center with Trey Smith at left guard and freshman Wanya Morris at tackle.
This lineup played together almost exclusively throughout the first half.
It was the first start for Calbert, a 330-pound redshirt sophomore who run blocks like a bulldozer. Calbert playing tackle necessitated Wright moving inside, which Pruitt considered to be a more difficult transition.
“We’re going to the right folks,” Pruitt said during his Monday press conference. “We might not be taking the right path to get there so to speak.
“There’s a lot of things technically that we need to clean up but the positive is there were very few mental errors.”
While the offensive line seemingly is gaining some traction in terms of deployment and potential, the defensive line still is finding its footing. Chattanooga, an FCS school, rushed for 151 yards. The opposition is averaging 157 yards per game through three games.
Pruitt only mentioned graduate transfer defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon on Monday as far as playing well. Otherwise, the status report was underwhelming.
“We have to kind of re-establish the line of scrimmage a little bit,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to get better in the pass rush. We’ve got to get more push up the middle.”
UT had zero sacks and just one quarterback hurry from the linemen against Chattanooga.
In other matters pertaining to Saturday’s game:
^Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks is out for the season (dislocated ankle), meaning UT will see Kyle Trask. He came on after Franks was injured last Saturday to complete 9 for 13 passes for 126 yards and rush for a TD in Florida’s 29-21 comeback victory at Kentucky.
^Pruitt believes that outside linebacker Darrell Taylor can play better as he’s feeling better.
“Unfortunately he had a little bit of an injury during fall camp that really has been going on since July,” Pruitt said. “He didn’t get to practice as much as we would’ve like to have practiced him but he’s getting healthier and healthier.”
^ Pruitt said that he hadn’t decided yet whether Bryce Thompson will make the trip to Florida. The sophomore cornerback was reinstated last week after being suspended following an Aug. 24 arrest on a misdemeanor charge of domestic assault.
^ Assistant coach Tee Martin told the Knoxville Quarterback Club on Monday that UT changed its schedule this week and practiced Sunday night. The players were off on Monday.
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org