Dan Fleser: Vols Looking Forward To Road Challenges

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

KNOXVILLE – When the time has come for Tennessee to get down to serious football business in practice this week, the volume has gone up.

The soundtrack of players, coaches and pads popping has been augmented in Metallica-like fashion by the din of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium being piped in through the speakers. The recording has served as preparation for the real thing when the Vols (1-2) visit No. 9 Florida (3-0) on Saturday for their SEC opener and first road game.

Former Vol linebacker Will Overstreet played two high-stakes games at Florida (1999 and 2001) during his career. He learned to keep his helmet on at all times at a place called “The Swamp” and brace himself for “a lot of commotion.”

“To me, it’s fun going on the road; I like going on the road,” UT coach Jeremy Pruitt said on Monday. “You find out who you are. Everybody is against you. You see a little bit about your character. It’ll be good for us.”  

The Vols already know that they are relatively inexperienced. To date, 28 players have made their UT debuts this season, including 17 true freshmen. Seven of these players, including four true freshmen, are listed as starters. Two freshmen – Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright – man starting posts on the offensive line, where the Swamp’s commotion will conspire the most against UT’s play.

The younger players still are formulating the practice habits that Pruitt believes will serve them well in these situations. Therefore, the counsel of UT’s veterans has taken on more importance.

There was an echo in the advice of senior linebacker Daniel Bituli and junior safety Theo Jackson, who urged the younger players to watch more film this week.

“Any little mistake can cause a big play,” Jackson said, “or something to go against you.”

Any finger-wagging about preparation also has been accompanied by some pats on the back regarding performance. Jackson said that he will tell the freshmen: “Play your game. You’re here for a reason.”

Likewise, Bituli intends to be a source of equanimity and inspiration for the younger players.

“Just staying calm and just using your attributes to go out there and make some plays,” he said.

Regarding adjustments, Overstreet first recalled Florida’s tropical heat, “especially early in the season,” he added.

The biggest challenge, though, was the opposition. Regardless of how these Gators compare with the ones Overstreet wrestled, they’re bound to be hard to catch.

“Speed-wise, it’s going to be step up,” he said. “The running backs are going to be faster. Even the big guys run faster.”

Communication will be of paramount importance, to the point where, Overstreet said: “You have to concentrate more on communication.”

Bituli’s presence should help in terms of conveying signals and getting aligned properly on defense. He expects to make a difference anyway.

“With me being in there, I’ll be able to handle setting the front and making all these adjustments,” he said.

The greater challenge will be on offense, particularly since the crowd will turn up its volume when Tennessee has the ball. Hence the crowd noise at UT’s practice this week as quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has worked on all the different ways to stay connected with his teammates.

“The Swamp’s not an easy place to play in; we know that,” he said. “We’re going to have to do a lot communicating during practice and we’re going to have to be very vocal with all our different things – whether it’s hand signals or it’s me just calling out different things that I see.”

Thompson traveling: Pruitt said Wednesday that Bryce Thompson will be traveling with the team to Florida.

The sophomore cornerback was reinstated last week after being suspended following an Aug. 24 arrest on a charge of misdemeanor domestic assault.

* * * 

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 danfleser3@gmail.com

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