Tennessee gets ready for Gators

Published 11:25 am Thursday, September 14, 2023

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Gearing up for Saturday’s conference opener and first road game of the 2023 campaign at Florida (7 p.m., ESPN), the 11th-ranked Vols took Haslam Field for practice on a sunny Tuesday morning. After picking up a pair of non-conference wins to start the season, the Big Orange is preparing for a physical matchup in Gainesville, which comes with the territory of competing in the Southeastern Conference.

Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary met with members of the media following Tuesday’s practice and had high praise for Florida’s quarterback Graham Mertz, skill players Ricky Pearsall, Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne, and the UF offense as a whole.

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“(They are) a very well-coached team,” Jean-Mary said. “Big, physical offensive line. They do a lot of things to create mismatches with their scheme. We’re going to have to do a great job – you mentioned communication, you mentioned being assignment sound – we’re going to have to do a great job this week.”

After spelling graduate transfer Keenan Pili due to an injury sustained in the season opener, sophomore linebacker Elijah Herring led the Vols with five tackles against Virginia and made his first start as a Vol in the home opener vs. Austin Peay. The young backer has honed in on his communication skills and eye discipline, and Jean-Mary discussed what Herring is working to improve this week for the conference lidlifter.

“It’s going to be reading his keys, putting his eyes in the right place,” Jean-Mary said. “The big thing with (Florida’s) run game is they have a lot of movement on their offense and that can lead, especially an inexperienced linebacker, to put his eyes in the wrong spot. We got to make sure he’s obviously in tune to what we’re doing on defense and make sure we keep our run gap integrity with all the things that they do, and if he does that, I know he’ll be fine.”

Through the first two weeks of the 2023 campaign, the Vols lead the nation with 11 sacks and rank second in the country with 25 tackles for loss. Tennessee emphasized the pass rush from its front four throughout the offseason, and senior defensive lineman Omari Thomas addressed what has led to the unit’s success so far this fall.

“I would just say working on it every day, continuing to have fun,” Thomas said. “That’s something that Coach (Rodney Garner) preaches to us all the time, is play vertical, play vertical, play vertical. When you play on the other side of the line of scrimmage, it allows good things to happen. That’s just something that we’ve really bought into, and we’re going to continue to buy into. We work our drills every day to make sure we’re playing vertical. And, we’re having fun. You go out there, when you’re having fun and playing for the people that’s next to you, you feel like you can do anything.”