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Heupel: Tennessee Focusing on Florida’s Environment and Option Ahead of Showdown in Gainesville

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This weekend, Tennessee (2-1) will travel to face No. 11 Florida (2-1) in the 51st meeting between the schools.

UT is looking for its first win in The Swamp since 2003, while the Gators currently lead the series 30-20 after winning in Knoxville in 2020.

For our take, you can listen to our Tennessee-Florida preview podcast here

As for Josh Heupel, this weekend marks his first SEC road test as the Vols’ head coach. It also marks Tennessee’s first conference foe in a seven-game SEC slate.

On Wednesday, Heupel made an appearance on the SEC Coaches’ Media Teleconference to preview the matchup, which currently features the Gators as a 20-point favorite.

“Everyone realizes this is a big one,” he said. “It’s why you come to Tennessee. We are all excited about this opportunity.”

That excitement should only intensify once the Vols take the field for a prime time, Saturday night kickoff in Gainesville.

“We practiced with a ton of crowd noise (this week),” Heupel said. “That’s a place that can get extremely loud….Our quarterback, offensive line and skill guys all have to be on the same page.”

But who will Tennessee’s quarterback be? Well, that’s still up for debate.

Heupel said there’s no update on Joe Milton III, but that he and Hendon Hooker both need to be more decisive in the pocket.

Wednesday, Florida coach Dan Mullen did note some positives he’d gleaned from watching Tennessee’s film — namely that both UT quarterbacks can extend plays.

“Both have strong arms,” he said. “They’re both good runners, but to me the thing that makes them dangerous is their ability to extend plays… creating on their own.”

Mullen also complimented Heupel’s offensive scheme, which has the Vols leading the nation in 3.08 plays per minute.

“That’s their scheme, spread it out and snap the ball as fast as you can,” Mullen said. “It’s something different — it’s hard to practice the tempo at which they’re going. What we can’t do is be shocked by how fast they’re going.”

For Tennessee, one key to that tempo is freshman wideout Walker Merrill. The Brentwood native was the Vols’ leading receiver against Tennessee Tech despite dealing with a nagging injury during camp.

 “He’s a guy that had a great spring… continued to grow and evolve as a player,” Heupel said. “Did a nice job last week with the ball in his hands. A young guy who can continue to grow in what we’re doing.”

On the flip side, Tennessee’s defense will face a Gators offense that ranks second in the nation in rushing with a potent option attack. 

“It’s always a part of what they’ve done offensively,” Heupel said, as he added that the Gators’ option offense been a mainstay through different QBs.

Tennessee could face two different UF quarterbacks again this week in Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson.

Heupel and his staff have emphasized “playing disciplined and playing your keys,” and that “tackling, containment and bottling up” are of even greater significance against the Gators.

In the preview podcast, we noted the importance of Tennessee linebacker Juwan Mitchell, who has yet to make a significant impact despite leading Texas in tackles last season.

But the Vols can also look to Theo Jackson, as well as Jeremy Banks.

From starting as a running back, to getting kicked off the team after an incident with police, to returning to the Vols and making an impact on defense — Banks has undergone quite the transformation on Rocky Top.

Now, he’s an essential part of a unit that faces a tough test against a Florida team that Heupel said showed a lot of “fight” against Alabama.

“Jeremy Banks, his buy-in from a culture standpoint has continued to increase,” Heupel said.

The Vols’ coach also noted that No. 33 has been accountable and “plays extremely hard and practices the same way.”

Tennessee will need that kind of production all across the field this Saturday. 

Kickoff against the Gators is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.