KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) — After three straight non-conference games at Neyland Stadium to kick off the 2019 season, the Tennessee football team began preparation for its first road game and first Southeastern Conference matchup of the fall.
Tennessee running back Ty Chandler (8) during first half action against BYU Saturday, Sep. 7, 2019. Michael Patrick/WVLT
Tennessee travels to No. 9/8 Florida on Saturday for a Noon ET kick inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. The Gators have won seven straight games dating back to the end of last season under second-year head coach Dan Mullen.
Florida has an experienced offense and impressive defense that leads the nation in sacks (16), while allowing only 13.7 points per game. Florida is coming off a 29-21 win over Kentucky where the Gators rallied to score 19 fourth-quarter points behind backup quarterback Kyle Trask, who replaced an injured Feleipe Franks.
"When you look at Florida this week, there's a lot of familiarity with the coaching staff there," Pruitt said. "I've coached against Dan (Mullen) for a long time and I'm very familiar with (Defensive Coordinator) Todd Grantham. (Linebackers Coach) Christian Robinson was a GA for us at Georgia. If you look at them, they're very well-coached. To start with, offensively, they are replacing some guys up front, but they're doing a really nice job. They probably lost their quarterback this past week, but the backup has come in there and done a really fine job, which would probably be expected from a guy who's been in the program for a while, a lot of maturity. These guys have really good skill players from tight ends, to running backs, to wide receivers."
UT enters its SEC East slate looking for the Vols' first win over Florida in the Jeremy Pruitt era. Last week against Chattanooga, the Vols had four interceptions en route to a 45-0 win at Neyland.
"We got a good win and got five turnovers (Saturday), which was very important," Pruitt said.
"We didn't turn the ball over, which was probably the difference in the game. We created some opportunities in special teams. Those guys have done a really nice job of running the football against us and created some explosive plays there."
With three of the Vols' next four matchups against teams currently ranked in the AP Top-10, Pruitt's plan for such a daunting task is to take it one week at a time.
"You just have to worry about the team that you're playing," Pruitt said. "You're not playing all four of them at one time. We're playing Florida this week. We'll focus on Florida and then whoever is after that."
The Vols will look to several freshmen to make plays in their first away game. Pruitt expects the young guys to stay disciplined in their first road test.
"It's about execution," Pruitt said. "Knowing what to do, how to do it, and why it's important to do it that way, getting prepared throughout the week. You create the right habits during the week, and to me it's fun going on the road. I like going on the road. You find out who you are. Everybody is against you. You see a little bit about your character. It'll be good for us."
Bituli Makes Return
The Vols active tackles leader Daniel Bituli made his season debut on Saturday against the Mocs after battling a knee injury at the end of Fall Camp. The senior collected a pair of tackles, a quarterback hit and a pass breakup.
Pruitt noted that Bituli's expanded time in the program helped him ease back into action and run the defense.
"Daniel (Bituli) is guy that we have a lot of time invested in him, starting with last spring, two springs now, two fall camps, so you know when you come into a program and you spend that much time with guys to develop to get them ready to play and then they can't play, there's a difference," Pruitt said. "Will Ignont doesn't really play the money position, but he hadn't played money for us, that's why we moved Jeremy Banks over to create some more depth, but it's obvious that he has some experience there playing, whether it was with us or before us. The game slows down a little bit and probably takes a little bit of pressure off the other guys as far as making calls and adjustments."
Special Teams Shine
The Vols have been dominant in the special-teams phase through the first three weeks of the season.
Placekicker Brent Cimaglia has made all eight of his field-goal attempts this season to tie for the national lead and extend his streak to 10 consecutive field goals made, dating back to last fall. Paxton Brookshas kicked off 18 times, with 17 resulting in touchbacks. Brandon Johnson recovered a Tyler Byrd blocked punt in UT's 45-0 win over Chattanooga, with Johnson returning it 24 yards for a touchdown. It marked the first time the Vols have returned a blocked punt for a touchdown since Marquill Osbornedid so against ETSU on Sept. 8, 2018.
Additionally, the Vols rank first in the SEC in punt return average (23.67) and fourth in kick return average (25.0) behind veteran returners Marquez Callaway and Ty Chandler. Tennessee also ranks second in the league in net punting average (49.3), third in punt return defense (1.00 yards allowed per return) and is the only team in the SEC that has not allowed any kick return yardage.
"Brent (Cimaglia) has done a nice job on field goals," Pruitt said. "Riley (Lovingood) snapping and Joe (Doyle) holding, those three together have done a really nice job. Paxton (Brooks), except for kicking it out of bounds the other day, has had a touchback on every kick. Joe has punted every time except for one, Paxton punted one the other day. The guys have executed very well there, and we have to continue to do that because the guys back there receiving the balls are more and more capable of putting points on the scoreboard."