Florida defense thriving as Vols invade the Swamp

Florida Athletics photo by Molly Kaiser / Florida redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamari Lyons (95) celebrates with teammates after a lost-yardage stop in the Gators' season-opening 24-11 loss at Utah on Aug. 31.
Florida Athletics photo by Molly Kaiser / Florida redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamari Lyons (95) celebrates with teammates after a lost-yardage stop in the Gators' season-opening 24-11 loss at Utah on Aug. 31.

The Florida Gators allowed a 70-yard touchdown pass on their first defensive snap of the 2023 season.

They’ve barely budged since.

Florida heads into Saturday night’s showdown against No. 11 Tennessee inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with some significant defensive momentum under first-year coordinator Austin Armstrong. The Gators are allowing just 191.0 yards per game to rank second nationally, yielding 38 second-half yards in their 24-11 opening loss at Utah and limiting McNeese to 112 total yards in last weekend’s 49-7 shellacking.

During last year’s debut season of head coach Billy Napier, the Gators surrendered 411.0 yards per game to rank 97th nationally.

“I think it’s just being in year two,” Napier said this week. “I’ve been pleased with this staff’s improvement, because I think each one of the assistant coaches has done a nice job of kind of going to another level.

“It’s the second year in our year-round plan for the development of our players and knowing what to do with their time, and I think they’re benefiting from being taught the same material.”

The Gators are allowing 75.5 rushing yards per game and face a Tennessee offense averaging 257.5 yards on the ground. The team that has rushed for the most yards has won 17 of the last 20 Florida-Tennessee contests.

(READ MORE: Vols determined to avoid 10th consecutive Swamp defeat)

Florida’s roster has been a revolving door since Dan Mullen’s fourth and final season in Gainesville two years ago resulted in a 6-7 collapse. The 2021 Gators did produce an impressive 38-14 waxing of Tennessee before plummeting, but only 11 players and two starters from that game — center Kingsley Eguakun and cornerback Jason Marshall — are still in the program.

Marshall, edge rusher Princely Umanmielen and “star” Jaydon Hill started a majority of Florida’s games last season, while linebacker Shemar Jones and strong safety Miguel Mitchell had limited starts. Defensive end Caleb Banks (Louisville) and nose tackle Cam Jackson (Memphis) are starting after arriving via the transfer portal, with cornerback Jalen Kimber also starting after transferring from Georgia following the 2021 season.

“Austin has done a good job from a leadership standpoint in terms of connecting with the staff and with the players, and I do think we’ve improved the personnel to some degree,” Napier said. “We’ve added some significant front seven players not only through the portal but with some really talented true freshmen.

“The bigger challenges are ahead of us, and obviously this week presents a ton of challenges relative to their personnel and their tempo, but I do think we’re making improvements, much like we anticipated.”

ESPN will televise the  game, which kicks off at 7 and is the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

(READ MORE: Vols confident in Herring before linebacker’s first road start)

Given the improved play of Tennessee’s defense, especially in its opening rout of Virginia, a repeat of last September’s 38-33 victory by the Volunteers in Knoxville seems unlikely from the standpoint of total scoring. Florida has racked up 31 or more points five consecutive years against Tennessee and 26 or more eight straight times, but could 20 be enough to win Saturday night?

Tennessee’s point total in last Saturday’s 30-13 downing of Austin Peay marked the lowest of third-year head coach Josh Heupel’s 20 wins with the Vols, who will be dealing with a raucous crowd in addition to a motivated Florida defense after last year’s outcome in which the Gators allowed 576 yards.

“The communication, in particular on offense, is a huge deal,” Heupel said. “Defensively, you actually wind up dealing with it when you’re at home. There are things we do in training camp, and we have portions in camp where we work on playing in this type of environment.

“Obviously the environment is tough to completely simulate, and we’ve got to handle it in a really positive way.”

The Vols have lost their last two games in which they were disadvantaged from a crowd standpoint, falling last November at Georgia, 27-13, and at South Carolina, 63-38.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.