Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt was asked Monday afternoon on his weekly Zoom call how his defense has fared this season when it comes to guarding tight ends.
"Well, it doesn't matter how we've defended them," Pruitt said. "None of them have been like this guy. This is probably, in all my years coaching, the most talented guy that we've ever played against."
Florida junior Kyle Pitts, the 6-foot-6, 246-pound mismatch for everybody in college football, returned from a two-week absence due to a concussion and hauled in three touchdown catches last Saturday afternoon as the No. 6 Gators thumped Kentucky 34-10. Florida will make its first December trip to Knoxville this week, where a triumph would clinch a first Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title since 2016.
The 34-point showing against the Wildcats was actually the lowest output of the season for third-year Gators coach Dan Mullen, who was magnificent as the offensive coordinator on Utah's undefeated team in 2004, Florida's national championship teams of 2006 and 2008, and as head coach of Mississippi State's 2014 team that climbed to No. 1 for the first time in program history.
Alex Smith, Chris Leak, Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott were the quarterbacks of those aforementioned teams, but now it's senior Kyle Trask guiding Pitts and other talented weapons such as running back Dameon Pierce, receivers Jacob Copeland, Trevon Grimes and Malik Davis, and the always versatile Kadarius Toney.
"I think these guys are right there with those guys," Mullen said when asked to compare this year's offense with the best throughout his career. "To have a dynamic offense, you've got to have great players, and we have great players who are tough to match up on and can make a lot of different plays. It's not one or two. We have depth and a lot of great players out there on the field.
"If you look at our explosive offenses in the past like a 2008 Florida, a 2004 Utah or 2014 Mississippi State, they're all very different. I think the key to that is that our coaches have done a good job of finding the strengths of the players. All these offenses have schemes that are similar, but there are certainly a lot of differences in how we do it and how we go about it."
At a program that had aerial wizardry under Steve Spurrier during the 1990s and the electric tandem of Tebow and Percy Harvin under Urban Meyer in the mid-2000s, the current Gators are on pace to be statistically superior in a coronavirus-altered season that has not allowed for the feasting on cupcakes such as Idaho and UT-Martin. Florida is averaging 7.41 yards per play, topping the 7.40-yards averaged by the 1995 Gators that had junior quarterback Danny Wuerffel.
Trask leads the nation with 34 touchdown passes and is well within Wuerffel's single-season program mark of 39, which he compiled in 1996 on his way to the Heisman Trophy. The 6-5, 240-pound Trask is averaging 351.3 passing yards per game on an offense that is compiling 509.3 yards a contest.
"Dan has always done a really good job as a play-caller based off the personnel he has on his team," Pruitt said. "You look at them right now, and they're efficient running the football and throwing the football. They get the ball to a lot of different receivers and a lot of different running backs, and he's always done a fantastic job of mixing it up.
"They're probably throwing it more now that they ever have, but that's based off his team, right? They've got a very good quarterback with a good surrounding cast. He's just playing to his strengths, and he's always done a good job of that."
Much has been made of Tennessee's 0-8 record under Pruitt against Alabama, Florida and Georgia that has transpired by at least three touchdowns, but the Volunteers led the Bulldogs 21-17 at halftime earlier this season and were a yard away from pulling within 28-20 of the Crimson Tide during last year's contest in Tuscaloosa.
Pruitt's Vols have yet to be competitive against Mullen's Gators, getting outscored by a combined 43-3 before halftime of the past two meetings. Pitts had a 19-yard touchdown reception barely two minutes into Florida's 34-3 cakewalk last year in Gainesville.
Through their 7-1 start this season, the Gators have six touchdowns, one field goal and one three-and-out in their eight opening possessions. The three-and-out transpired against Georgia in Jacksonville, where the Gators quickly regrouped to score 38 first-half points, so it's not only a matter of Tennessee being stout defensively on Saturday but stout from the start.
"When you've coached against each other as much as we have, there might be too much history," Pruitt said. "Obviously what they're doing right now is not what he was doing at Mississippi State, so you really have to go over what they've done right now. You can see that he pulls out some things that he has done over the last 10 or 12 years, and it will show up in a game, so you have to be ready for everything."
Odds and ends
Pruitt said there were two positive COVID tests immediately after the team returned from its Nov. 21 loss at Auburn and that an estimated 16 players are currently quarantined, including one quarterback. He expects all but four or five of those players to be cleared for Saturday. Pruitt on playing in Neyland Stadium for the first time since Oct. 24: "Obviously it's a huge advantage for us to play at home, and our crowd has been great in every game this year, and we'll need them to be that way again Saturday." The SEC will announce on Friday its schedules for the games on Dec. 12 and Dec. 19. The Vols still have a home matchup with Texas A&M and a trip to Vanderbilt.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.