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The Tennessee defense surrounds Todd Kelly Jr. (24) as he comes up with an interception. The Florida Gators visited the Tennessee Volunteers in a important SEC football contest at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016.

KNOXVILLE -- There were many stars for Tennessee in the 38-28 win against Florida last week, and there's a common thread among many of those players.

The handful of in-state products propelling the Volunteers on their current ascension also played vital roles in the emotional victory against the Gators.

Wide receivers Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings made big touchdown catches, defensive end Derek Barnett took over the game in the second half, running back Jalen Hurd and three offensive linemen (Jashon Robertson, Jack Jones and Brett Kendrick) combined to wear down Florida's defense and safety Todd Kelly Jr. played his best game of the season.

"It tells you that the state of Tennessee obviously has talent," Kelly said Tuesday.

"Growing up as a kid playing little league, I always wondered about what kind of guys were going to play with me in college, and once I got to the high school level, I realized there were other people in the state of Tennessee that were capable of playing at the Division I level.

"I got into communication with them and we made sure we wanted to play football together. We ultimately ended up here at the University of Tennessee, and it was always my dream to beat teams like Florida and Georgia and other teams like that. That's what we're trying to do now that we're here."

Upon taking the Tennessee job head coach Butch Jones made keeping some of the state's top players at home one of his primary priorities in recruiting, and though the Vols haven't gotten every single talented player from within the borders of its home state, it's hard to argue the ones he did land haven't made a difference.

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Tennessee's Derek Barnett (9) sacks Florida quarterback Austin Appleby (12) in the 4th quarter. The Florida Gators visited the Tennessee Volunteers in a important SEC football contest at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016.

A dozen of the 22 players to start against the Gators were players from Tennessee.

"I'm very prideful in making plays, just from being from Tennessee," said Barnett, who had two sacks against Florida. "It says Tennessee has a bunch of ball players. In the state of Tennessee and Middle Tennessee, I'd say we have a bunch of ball players here."

Many of the in-state players Tennessee signed joined the Vols with aspirations of restoring the program to its rightful place among the best in the SEC.

Though the Vols took a big step against the Gators, they haven't achieved that objective just yet.

"I feel like we're in the process of doing so," Kelly said. "I feel like we have the confidence that we're one of the best teams in the country. That's what any team wants to say, but we truly believe it and we have to go out and not only play like it, but work like it and hold ourselves accountable to that standard.

"We're really excited going into every week, and we have that confidence that when we go out, we're going to play our best football."

Tennessee's best football has come in spurts and stretches this season.

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Tennessee's Josh Malone (3) is congratulated by center Dylan Wiseman (71) after a 4th quarter touchdown. The Florida Gators visited the Tennessee Volunteers in a important SEC football contest at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016.

The Vols were outscored 34-10 in the first quarter in their first four games this season, but they outscored those opponents 87-24 after halftime.

The next step for this team is putting together a more complete game, and doing so at Georgia on Saturday could move Tennessee significantly closer to its goals for this season.

"I feel like we haven't really started the way we wanted to in any of our games," Kelly said. "Going into this game we want to play 60 minutes of football. That's what the game is all about, not just playing one half or the second half or first half, but playing a full game.

"We know that we haven't played our best football yet, and that's something that we really look forward to, seeing what it's like when we do play 60 minutes of Tennessee football. We're really focused this week on coming out, starting fast and playing our style of play."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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