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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns Saturday night at Florida before having to leave the eventual 38-14 loss due to injury early in the fourth quarter.

What do quarterbacks Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker, running backs Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans, receiver Jalin Hyatt, linebacker Juwan Mitchell and the Mays brothers — Cade and Cooper — have in common?

They all compete for the Tennessee Volunteers, but they're also among the many Vols who've struggled to stay healthy under first-year coach Josh Heupel.

"I said at the beginning of the year that, as far as pure numbers, we're probably as thin as anybody in the country based off guys on scholarship," Heupel said Monday in a news conference. "Depth for us is certainly something that we're thinking about and trying to continue to develop. The young guys have got to continue to grow and be ready to play when given the opportunity.

"It's a constant development of your roster, and it's something that you're always thinking about and working on. Obviously recruiting in this cycle will be big for us, too."

The hits kept coming for the Vols during Saturday night's 38-14 loss at Florida, as Hooker and Cooper Mays were unavailable to finish Tennessee's Southeastern Conference opener. Hooker played admirably, completing 13 of 23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, before Milton entered in relief with 9:02 remaining.

Milton started the first two games before missing the 56-0 rout of Tennessee Tech due to injury, and he could reclaim the top spot for this week's game at Missouri due to Hooker potentially being out. Heupel was asked if Hooker was in concussion protocol, and he responded by saying not currently.

"I'm not sure if he'll be available or not," Heupel said. "We'll see how that transpires throughout the course of the week."

Heupel also wouldn't speculate as to whether Harrison Bailey could challenge Milton for the starting role this week should Hooker be unable to play.

Tennessee produced its most complete game of last year's 3-7 disappointment with a 35-12 whipping of Missouri in the second contest of the season. The Tigers started Shawn Robinson at quarterback the first two games a year ago but made the switch to Connor Bazelak, who promptly upset LSU in his first career start and has completed 68.8% of his attempts this season for 1,200 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Yet heading Mizzou's offense this year is senior running back Tyler Badie, a 5-foot-8, 194-pounder from New Orleans who has rushed for 417 yards and 6.3 yards per carry through a 2-2 start.

"For them offensively, everything kind of goes through that running back, whether it's in the run game or the pass game," Heupel said. "The guy has been dynamic and has been near the top in the country in total yards and productivity. He's a really good football player."

The Tigers have struggled defensively this season, allowing 24 points to Central Michigan, 35 to Kentucky, 28 to Southeast Missouri and 41 to Boston College this past Saturday in an overtime loss. Mizzou is giving up 452.8 yards a game, which ranks 115th among the 130 Bowl Subdivision teams.

"There have been some explosives in the run and pass game against them, but I think they've gotten better as time has gone on these first four weeks," Heupel said. "They are understanding their scheme and fitting things better, so it's a group that has continued to improve."

Tennessee is a 3-point underdog this week after being nearly a three-touchdown underdog against the Gators, so the opportunity for victory is there — provided the Vols can stem the injury rash that already has plagued a limited roster.

"I've been in the training room all day trying to get my body right and my legs right just to be ready for the next one," redshirt junior tight end Jacob Warren said. "This season is not going to slow up for anybody, so it's a matter of staying ahead of it and taking care of yourself."

 

Seconding that

Senior cornerback Alontae Taylor said after Saturday's loss that the Vols would not "fall apart," and Warren echoed that sentiment Monday.

"We're all together — offense, defense and special teams," Warren said. "Everybody believes in each other, and we all know that a lot of the issues we're having are self-inflicted. We can change them, so it's a matter of rallying around each other."

 

Praising the backs

Small and Evans combined on 22 carries for 109 yards at Florida, with Small rushing 11 times for 59 yards and Evans 11 for 50.

"I thought our running backs ran their hardest and performed probably their best through the course of the season the other night," Heupel said. "They had great pad level and did a better job of pressing the line of scrimmage. They're still bouncing a couple of things that I would like to hit more vertical, but I thought they ran like a running back should run."

 

Odds and ends

Tennessee's home game Oct. 12 against South Carolina will have a noon kickoff on ESPN2. Vols sophomore edge-rusher Tyler Baron on the difference between this season's and last season's 2-2 teams: "I definitely think we're playing with a lot more effort than we did last year, and we're not dwelling on mistakes as much." ... Mizzou is 5-4 against Tennessee since joining the SEC in 2012, but the Vols have claimed the past two meetings. ... The Tigers averaged 500.5 and 502.2 offensive yards per game during the 2016-17 seasons, when Heupel served as offensive coordinator under Barry Odom.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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