Vols working through ‘disappointment and hurt’ as Roadrunners await

Florida Athletics photo by Ashley Ray / Tennessee cornerback Kamal Hadden (5) and his Volunteers teammates are having to regroup this week after surrendering 172 rushing yards to Florida's Trevor Etienne during Saturday night's 29-16 loss to the Gators in Gainesville.
Florida Athletics photo by Ashley Ray / Tennessee cornerback Kamal Hadden (5) and his Volunteers teammates are having to regroup this week after surrendering 172 rushing yards to Florida's Trevor Etienne during Saturday night's 29-16 loss to the Gators in Gainesville.

It's cleansing and learning week at the University of Tennessee.

Oh, and it's UT-UTSA week as well.

The Volunteers returned to the football practice fields Monday for the first time since Saturday night's 29-16 loss at Florida, which marked their 10th straight defeat against the Gators in Gainesville. Tennessee made its latest trip as a seven-point favorite in the Swamp, but the Vols surrendered 26 consecutive points after taking an early 7-0 lead.

"Everybody in the building is disappointed," Tennessee third-year coach Josh Heupel said Monday in a news conference. "You can still sense it from the players, the disappointment and the hurt. There are a lot of lessons we've got to learn, but we've got to learn them quick.

"We've got to wash this one, too, because we've got a really good opponent coming into Neyland this Saturday."

Tennessee is facing the University of Texas at San Antonio for the first time Saturday (4 p.m. on the SEC Network). The Roadrunners are in their first season in the American Athletic Conference after winning Conference USA titles the past two years.

UTSA won a combined 23 games during the 2021-22 seasons but is off to a 1-2 start this year with a win over Texas State and with losses to Houston and Army.

The Vols enter this week trying not to be their own worst enemies after consecutive disappointments against Austin Peay — a 30-13 win on Sept. 9 — and versus the Gators. Tennessee's lowest point total of the Heupel era occurred in last November's 27-13 loss at eventual national champion Georgia, with its second- and third-lowest totals transpiring in the Swamp.

"We track self-inflicted wounds, and those can be penalties or unforced errors or in the communication," Heupel said. "Our percentage was way too high on Saturday, and it really was the week before, too. That's why you can move the ball at times but not have that many points.

"We've got to clean that up, because you can't beat yourself."

Florida's 26 unanswered points were the most the Vols had surrendered consecutively since South Carolina turned a 35-31 advantage into a 63-31 romp last November. Heupel said Monday that only the wide receivers "took a step in the right direction" from how they had performed earlier this month.

"You can't let one play affect another, and that certainly happened throughout the course of the first half in particular," Heupel said. "It can't transpire that way, and it's up to us coaches being better and the players being better and being better up front. At the end of the day, we've got to find the solution to it.

"It's the subtle details in everything we're doing, and people can't take their turn of being off. We've got to become a unit that plays 11 together all of the time, and that goes for defensively, too. We're fully capable, and we need to take a step forward quickly."


Penalties announced

The Southeastern Conference announced Monday that Tennessee defensive lineman Omarr Norman-Lott and Florida tight end Dante Zanders and offensive linemen Damieon George and Micah Mazzccua will be suspended for the first half of their games this weekend for "unsportsmanlike actions in the aftermath" of Saturday night's game.

In a statement, the league said that the suspensions were determined after video review and consultation between the SEC office and the two schools. Florida is hosting Charlotte this weekend.


Sampson sidelined

Tennessee sophomore running back Dylan Sampson had played in nine consecutive games dating back to last season entering Saturday night, but he didn't see action against the Gators.

"He's been a little nicked up, but he was available," Heupel said. "We had plans of having him in the rotation, and I think on both sides of the football, the flow of the game in particular in the first half dictated why we didn't rotate how we anticipated going into the football game. "


A rapid exchange

Redshirt junior right tackle Gerald Mincey, who was cited for simple possession of marijuana last Thursday night in Knoxville, didn't play on the line Saturday.

This exchange Monday provided the latest on Mincey's status:

Reporter: "He didn't play on offense the other night. Was that punishment for the citation?"

Heupel: "We just decided not to play him on the offensive side of the ball."

Reporter: "Why did he play on special teams?"

Heupel: "We just made that decision."

Reporter: "Will he be available to play on Saturday?"

Heupel: "We've got a long week here. We'll go through the week."


Fourth-down woes

Tennessee converted its first fourth-down opportunity this season when quarterback Joe Milton III found Sampson on fourth-and-5 for a 9-yard touchdown to cap the opening drive against Virginia.

Since that score, however, the Vols are just 1-for-6 on fourth-down tries. That includes an 0-for-3 clip against the Gators, with the most notable of those being Jaylen Wright getting stuffed on fourth-and-1 from the Florida 17 with 5:22 remaining in the third quarter.

"Some of those scenarios are different as far as what happens," Heupel said. "We have to execute what we're doing, and that's what we're targeting and how we're targeting and the fundamentals of it. We have to execute better in some of those situations. In some of those cases, we've practiced those exact looks.

"You have to execute on third down. Third-and-short should be a situation where you're picking it up 90% of the time, so we've got to be better in those situations, too."


Odds and ends

Tennessee's home game next Saturday against South Carolina will have a 7:30 kickoff, and it will be televised by the SEC Network. ... The Vols have tallied 32 tackles for loss and average 10.67 tackles for loss per game to rank second nationally behind Texas State in both categories. ... Senior linebacker Aaron Beasley ranks second nationally with 2.33 tackles for loss per contest. ... Senior cornerback and return specialist Dee Williams ranks fourth nationally with his average of 24.6 yards per punt return.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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