The transformation of Justin Worley is the key difference. A thumb injury limited his progress last season, ending the year with 196 pass attempts, completing 55.6 percent for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 117.4 passer rating.
Through the first four games this season, Worley has 155 attempts, completing 60 percent for 985 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions and a 128.7 passer rating. He’s throwing the ball better to all fields this fall.
“It all starts offensively (with) Justin Worley,” Will Muschamp said. “I think (he’s) playing very well.”
Worley’s emergence has allowed a talented group of receivers to show it on the field. Marquez North leads the group with 188 yards, and five other receivers are between 135 and 106 yards on the season. Von Pearson, who has been slowed by an ankle injury, would be among that group but currently sits at 98 yards.
The size makes this a tough matchup for the Florida secondary. Jason Croom and North are 6-4, playing physical when the ball is in the air. Muschamp estimated that Tennessee takes 8-10 deep shots down the field that the Gators will have to be prepared for on Saturday at noon. Pig Howard can play the slot or outside, giving them speed at any position.
The depth at the position is an important part of the Tennessee passing game.
“They have all made plays in the passing game so certainly I think the strength of their team is Justin (Worley) and their receiving corps,” Muschamp said.
Freshman Jalen Hurd has changed the running game for the Volunteers. Senior Marlin Lane and Hurd split carries in the season opener with 11 each, but since then, it’s the freshman that has taken over the backfield. And he hasn’t disappointed.
In the last three games, Hurd has totaled 61 carries for 299 yards.
“Tough, physical,” Muscham said of Hurd. “North and south runner, doesn’t try and do a lot east-west running. He gets the ball north and south. Really good football player, but that’s what you saw in high school. I mean he was a tough, downhill runner, pushes the pile in the run game. He does a nice job.”
The uncertain part of the Tennessee offense comes up front. The Volunteers replaced all five offensive linemen in the offseason and are tied for 112th in the country with 12 sacks allowed this season. The Gators have struggled to get pressure from anyone other than Dante Fowler this season, and while it might make sense for the unit to improve against Tennessee’s inexperienced line, Muschamp cautioned that his defense will be careful when deciding when to bring pressure.
“Each week presents its own set of challenges,” Muschamp said. “In doing so, you have to match up outside. One of the best things Justin Worley does is throw the deep ball. So you’ve got to pick your spots to pressure, but you also need to (pressure) with four rushers. We’ll try and stay multiple with what we do there.”
INJURY REPORT: Defensive tackle Leon Orr (knee) is out for Saturday’s game. Linebacker Michael Taylor (knee) and running back Brandon Powell (hamstring) are “questionable to doubtful” this weekend. Freshman receiver C.J. Worton (hand) is also out.
Left tackle D.J. Humphries is expected to play. He practiced some last week and was scheduled to practice again on Monday.
Without Orr inside, the Gators will push Jonathan Bullard to play more reps at defensive tackle. Sophomore Joey Ivie will also get more reps on Saturday. With Bullard playing more inside, Brian Cox will be counted to play at defensive tackle, as well as freshmen Taven Bryan and Gerald Willis.
“Both of those guys got a lot of reps in the open week and that was good for him,” Muschamp said.
If Taylor misses the game, the Gators will lean mostly on Neiron Ball, Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison at linebacker. Muschamp said he expects to play 85-90 percent nickel on Saturday, meaning Florida will only need two linebackers on the field in those situations.
SECONDARY SHUFFLE: Muschamp didn’t want to disclose the specific changes made to his struggling secondary during the bye week, but the Gators are trying a few new looks. Brian Poole is practicing more at the nickel, the position he played well at during the last two seasons before he moved to the outside cornerback spot this offseason.
Duke Dawson is also seeing more time at safety with the first team defense.
“We’re just continuing to find the right combination,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got a whole week of practice this week, so we’ll make those decisions probably the latter part of the week, probably Friday or Saturday.”TAILGATER Wooden Ice Chest Giveaway