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With all the chatter about the offense, could Tennessee’s defense be the deciding factor against UF?

The Vols’ defense is 22nd in the country in yards allowed per-play, and I think we’re gonna need the defense to do its part and more to handle the Gators in Gainesville

Austin Peay v Tennessee Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Everybody in Volnation is talking about Joe Milton, the receivers and why, as a whole, the offense isn’t clicking like we saw last year, when Milton came mostly into the second halves of games and just dropped bombs like a Y-Wing.

(sorry for the lag — still working on finding an easy-to-use screen recorder program that can handle the frames per-second needed for sports.)

The basis for this could be a multitude of reasons: Tennessee is replacing basically its entire group of starting wideouts, outside of Bru McCoy. Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White played last season, but White especially is adjusting to a new role, logging 53 snaps (second on the teams to McCoy’s 59) against Austin Peay, while last year White played 125 snaps, total.

And then there’s the Dont’e Thornton, uhhh, thing... where he’s caught two passes for 12 yards on six targets in the first two games of the year. Not the start to the season the coaches, fans or himself were hoping for. The WR rotation essentially went from four back down to three when Thornton played just 19 snaps against the Governors.

So if the the QB and WRs aren’t in lockstep on Saturday, the Vols might have to rely on their defense to leave Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with an early season, divisional win.

When Heupel and staff got here, they knew — with the style of offense they run and the personnel on the team at the time — that they were going to have to quickly transform the defense using the recruiting trail and the transfer portal. Since the staff got here, they’ve done just that. They’ve added loads of talent to the defensive line and the back seven (even though Tim Banks and Willie Martinez wont play the young talent (rolls eyes). All in all, in the last two classes, Tennessee’s added 27 players on defense via recruiting or the transfer portal.

We saw the potential leap sophomore EDGE James Pearce has made when he flashed for two sacks against UVA. After the game, Aaron Beasley said he wasn’t shocked by Pearce’s dynamic start to the year.

“Yeah, bro, I’m honestly not surprised of the kind of game he had,” Beasley said. “I’ve seen James grow as a player on the field and off the field, so, you know, he’s taken a huge step...”

Then fellow class of ‘22 EDGE Joshua Josephs, who actually looked like the more immediately college ready player last season with his 12 tackles, 2.5 TFLs and the first sack of his career against LSU at the end of the second quarter. Then, he tallied his first sack of this year against Austin Peay.

DL coach Rodney Garner is playing lots of guys, just like last year, and it’s giving these younger players, like freshman Daevin Hobbs, the chance to play meaningful snaps and then cause a little havoc when they’re in the game.

Hobbs is the second-leading solo tackler on the team with five, while sophomore linebacker/ EDGE Elijah Herring has slid right into the MLB spot after Keenan Pili’s injury and excelled. He’s got two solo tackles and seven assists, which puts him at third on the team with nine total tackles. Then there’s Aaron Beasley, who two years ago was a complete afterthought. Now he’s playing like a man with his hair on fire and the best player on UT’s defense.

After leading the team with eight solo tackles against Austin Peay, Beasley ranks first on Tennessee’s defense with 12 total tackles and six TFLs (making the opposing offenses put it in reverse for 25 yards). He’s second on the team in sacks with two and is second to Kamal Hadden in passes broken up with two. I’d look for Arion Carter to get some playing time, along with Jeremiah Tealander and Kalib Perry.

They’re young, but they already have the look of players who have been in a college strength and conditioning program for a couple years. They could be a good counter to a Florida team that is likely going have QB Graham Mertz do his best just to not lose them the game. UF running backs Montrell Johnson, Jr., and Trevor Etienne are averaging more than six yards per carry, so I figure Tennessee brings Walker or Tamarion McDonald down into the box to try and make Mertz beat them with his arm down the field.

Walker and McDonald are both playing well, as Walker has settled into the safety spot left open by Trevon Flowers, and McDonald has settled into the star position. They’ve combined for 18 tackles, four TFLs, one sack and two pass breakups.

All of these various puzzle pieces fit together and have the look of a defense that could surprise folks this season.

Tennessee’s currently 5th in sack percentage (14.29 — the Vols finished with a 5.66 sack percentage last season, so we’ll see how these figures extrapolate over the full season), and then the injection of talent into the defense (and the quality of opponent, of course,) also has UT ranked 16th in the nation in opponent rushing yards per-attempt at 2.2. The Vols are also holding opponents to just .19 points per-play, good for 22nd in the NCAA.

UT’s strength of schedule is an obvious qualifier here, ranking just 87th out of 131 NCAA teams.

It’s likely going to be Hadden guarding Ricky Pearsall, and I’m sure the Gators are going to throw some back-shoulder tosses and see if they can get Hadden to run into his man’s back to induce a pass interference call.

Either way, Florida breezed through their warm-up game against McNeese State, and Tennessee didn’t exactly blow the doors off in its win against Austin Peay. That concerns me, just because on the surface level it looks like Florida made adjustments while Tennessee’s offense has put up 10 combined points in the first quarters of its first two games.

That’s part of what made last year so special — big plays right out of the gate have a tendency to demoralize the opponent and its home crowd. If the Vols don’t come out clicking offensively, they may need several big plays from the defense.

Florida gets starting center The Gators’ red-shirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun is back, who’d started 16-straight games in 2021 and 2022 for the Gators before his injury prior to this season. Thusly, Saturday would be a good time for Omari Thomas and Omarr Norman-Lott to play like the eventual NFL draft picks they could be. The duo has combined for 13 tackles and 2.5 TFLs so far this year.

On paper, Tennessee is the better team. but if the offense hasn’t found its rhythm by Saturday, it’s going to need the defense to make Mertz uncomfortable and force him into mistakes. We’ll see what happens, but I’m with Brent Hubbs — I’ll believe a Vols’ win in Gainesville when it happens.

(I actually ended up picking Tennessee in the staff picks’ post that should be coming up on the site soon. Let’s hope my rare bit of optimism turns out clairvoyant.)