Tennessee's football program has been one gigantic cram session ever since Josh Heupel was hired in late January, but this week has taken it to a new level.
When the Volunteers open Southeastern Conference play Saturday night against No. 11 Florida in the famed Swamp, they will encounter a slew of Gators who have become quite stout at running the option. Florida rushed for 245 yards and 5.7 yards per carry in its 31-29 loss to top-ranked Alabama last weekend, with much of that success coming out of an attack resembling a service academy on steroids.
Redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones rushed 19 times for 77 yards and a touchdown for Dan Mullen's overhauled offense, while fifth-year senior running back Malik Davis had 10 carries for 86 yards and a score.
"I think that's always been a part of what they've done offensively dating way back to his previous stop at Florida," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "Last year, they obviously had great skill players and a quarterback who was extremely efficient and put up big yards in the pass game. I think the option portion of what they do has been a mainstay of what they've done offensively with all the different quarterbacks they've had.
"At the end of the day, you've got to play disciplined. You've got to play your keys and be in the right spot."
Florida (2-1, 0-1) enters Saturday's showdown ranked second nationally in rushing offense (336.3 yards per game) after leading the country in passing (378.6) last season, when Mullen's Gators had quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and receivers Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney.
"That's what makes him the guy that he is and the great head coach that he is," Jones said. "He's able to adjust to whatever team he has and make the best out of it. We've got a lot of confidence right now in our run game."
Alabama coach Nick Saban cited the lack of discipline in stopping Florida's option as a chief reason the Gators were able to rally from a 21-3 deficit, and now it's Tennessee's turn. That Florida became so good so quickly at running the option is certainly a concern for all Gators foes given that they likely didn't prepare for it back in the spring or even in preseason camp.
Heupel already has admitted as much.
"For the most part, it's been this week," Heupel said. "In year one of a program and certainly the time when we took over, the majority of reps were just getting your work installed as far as what you do and getting the kids up to speed."
Tennessee (2-1) does rank fifth nationally in run defense, having yielded just 54.3 yards per game against the trio of Bowling Green, Pittsburgh and Tennessee Tech. Heupel said Thursday that gap integrity has been good so far, which has allowed all three defensive levels to be in sync and has helped result in limiting big plays.
If ever Tennessee is to showcase its top tackling performance of the season, Saturday night against Florida's option wouldn't be a bad stage.
"There are different forms of it, whether it's power read or speed option," Heupel said, "but you've got to have a dive player, a quarterback player and a pitch player involved in it. It's going to force you to play responsibilities, and it's going to force you to read and react to things the right way. Then you've got to tackle extremely well in space.
"Their running backs and quarterbacks have the ability to make you miss. You've got to do a great job in space."
Heupel was asked Thursday about the availability of quarterback Joe Milton, who started the Bowling Green and Pitt games but sat out last Saturday.
"Joe has gotten some work here during the course of the week," Heupel said. "We'll find out more tomorrow with him, but some of the other guys maybe you didn't see last week — I anticipate most of those guys being able to play when we get down to Gainesville."
When asked if two quarterbacks could play against the Gators, he responded, "Right now, we're not leaning that way."
Heupel said middle linebacker and Texas graduate transfer Juwan Mitchell "has been able to be with us out on the grass a little bit this week" but didn't reveal whether he could play Saturday.
Filling in nicely
Jerome Carvin's senior year as Tennessee's starting left guard lasted just a handful of plays once center Cooper Mays was injured in the opener, but Carvin may finally be headed back to his preferred role.
"Jerome has done a really good job communication-wise," Heupel said. "It's been pretty seamless in the transition from him coming over from guard to center. Because he's our starting guard, the actual set of reps is not as high as if he was the No. 2 center when he stepped in, but I've been pleased with a lot of what he's done.
"I anticipate Coop being back with us and Jerome being able to slide over."
Join the party
Tennessee doesn't have a 10-catch or a 100-yard receiver through three games, so Heupel's response was understandable Thursday when asked if he had a No.1 target in the passing game.
"I'd like to have three guys that we feel like are No. 1 receivers, or four or five," he said. "We have great trust in the guys who are out there. Cedric (Tillman) has done a really good job out there at times, and so has JaVonta (Payton). Velus (Jones) has played well outside and inside, but all of those guys are going to have to be able to make plays."