GAMEDAY: In-depth Gators vs. Volunteers Match-up

As part of our "Game Day Spectacular", today we have our weekly in-depth head-to-head match up (also known as our Helmet Matchups) where we take every position opposite each other on the field and compare how they will do against each other in this weekend's massive SEC tilt in Knoxville. See which team has the edge!

GATOR OFFENSIVE LINE VS. VOLS DEFENSIVE FRONT

Florida offensive line Coach Joe Wickline brings the deepest and potentially best unit in his tenure to Knoxville. Experienced veterans Mike Degory, Randy Hand, Lance Butler, Jon Colon, and Mo Mitchell have been consistently solid through August drills. The group has effectively run blocked well, demonstrating hustle downfield to take on additional defenders. Pass protection has been in demand at Florida for years, and this group has provided quarterback Chris Leak with ample time to find an open receiver. An overall nasty attitude has suited these guys well thus far on the practice field, an attribute too often missing on Florida offensive fronts, yet demanded by Wickline. Picking up the Tennessee blitz will be their first major test of the season.

Wickline finally has the ability to move players around should an injury occur, without suffering a decline in performance as they have in past years. The Gators played inexperienced players, Anthony Guerrero, Billy Griffin, Steve Rissler, Drew Miller, and Phil Trautwein last week against EMU, and they performed well in their debut. In fact, Rissler supplanted Mitchell at right guard and must have graded out higher, as he remains the starter at right guard. Another opportunity for experience against MTSU would have further strengthened Florida's ability to get the talented inexperienced players more time. Regardless, Wickline appears to have seven linemen that he is absolutely comfortable with at any given time on the field. The line averages 6'5 ½ 310. With Mitchell, it soars to 6'6 ½ 323. The leader of this group is center Mike Degory. In his third year as a starter, Degory has a reputation as one of the most mentally and physically gifted linemen in college football. He will play a major role in deciphering Tennessee Defensive Coordinator John Chavis' attack.

The Volunteers return only one starter along the front four, defensive end Parys Haralson. Elected captain for 2004, the 6'2 255 junior recorded a sack, tackle for loss, and four total tackles against UNLV two weeks ago. Haralson is the quickest player on the UT front. Playing opposite Haralson is Karlton Neal, a 6'4 260 senior, who won the spring award fro defensive improvement. Neal wrapped up a couple tackles in the Vol opener.

The team is expecting big things from top rated 6'2 300 JUCO transfer Jesse Mahelona at tackle. He played only two games last year at Orange Coast (Ca) College before suffering a broken ankle. He logged 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and four total tackles against the Rebs. Another oft-injured Vol, Justin Harrell, is slated as the starter alongside Mahelona. Harrell (6'4 300) was Tennessee's Mr. Football Award winner in 2001. He has recorded only one tackle this season. He too suffered a broken ankle (2002), which set him back yet again after re-injuring it against Miami last season.

While loading up new faces in the starting lineup up front, the Vols breathe easier at linebacker. Tennessee returns a pair of second team All-SEC players in Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon. Burnett is a big-play backer with a knack for getting pressure when unleashed. The 6'3 235 outside linebacker recorded eight tackles and recovered a fumble against UNLV. Chavis moved Simon (5'11 225) inside last spring. He had his way against the Gators last year recording 16 tackles in the Vols win. Junior Jason Mitchell will man the other outside linebacker position. He is the fastest Volunteer linebacker recording a 4.4 40 time. Mitchell totaled six tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in the opener.

Analysis: Neither team has played a quality opponent, so gauging their prowess is difficult. The Vols gave up 164 yards rushing against UNLV. That can't be good news for Chavis and the Vols. Florida has suffered tropical interruptions and while solid, weren't as dominant as expected versus EMU. The Tennessee front has outstanding linebackers, but had better find a way to beat the Gators predatory offensive front.

Edge:

GATOR SKILLS POSITIONS VS. VOLS SECONDARY

Chris Leak and company have put on a show this August. They further demonstrated the ability to strike quick versus lowly EMU. The Gators have an outstanding group of talented receivers in OJ Small, Andre Caldwell, Dallas Baker, Chad Jackson and Jemalle Cornelius. The key is Leak pulling the trigger. He wasn't as sharp as he's been in previous contests. Strong arming at times, under throwing other times, but still getting the job done like a true winner. We'll chalk it up to emotions. Leak seemed a bit too ready last week, and that can be a problem for quarterbacks. So, how does he handle this one? He can't go into this game thinking about CJ Leak and his situation at Tennessee. We're well aware of Chris' dedication and affection for his family. If you believe that there isn't extra incentive for family pride, then you're sorely mistaken. But, he can't afford to get caught up in all of that. He has to simply play his game.

The receivers were solid, but not great last week. There were a few dropped passes that indicated that these guys were pretty jacked up as well. Small led the group with six catches for 99 yards. Caldwell had three receptions for 47 yards. He has a knack for tripping himself up though. As soon as "Bubba" calms down and picks his feet up, he'll quickly turn one of those catches into a sprint.

The tailback position at Florida is as deep as any unit the Gators have put on the field since the '96 season. Ciatrick Fason continues to turn heads. DeShawn Wynn and Skyler Thornton are quality backs who will both get their turn as the conference schedule moves forward. Fason ran for 105 yards on just 16 carries last weekend. Wynn and Fason combined for another 66 yards. All three have proven themselves capable coming out of the backfield. Fullback Billy Latsko seemingly improves with each opportunity. He caught a couple of passes last weekend, including one for a touchdown.

The Volunteer secondary. No kidding. That's exactly what this group would appear to be. How else do you explain the changes at corner after a week against UNLV? Jonathan Wade and Jonathan Hefney are the next contestants in the Tennessee cornerback rotation. Wade (6'0 185) is a former wide receiver who has made the move into the secondary following shoulder surgery last year. He qualified for the NCAA 200 meter and 4x100 meter championships. Wade's best time in the 100 meters was clocked at 10.35. Hefney (5'10 172) is a freshman out of Rock Hill, South Carolina. He was listed as the nation's 34th best defensive back prospect. Hefney played last season at Hargrave Military Academy. The loathsome duo, Roshaun Fellows and Antonio Gaines will probably also see action at cornerback, despite losing their position.

Jason Allen is the newest starter at free safety. Allen (6'2 200) actually started eight games last year. Possibly the staff at Tennessee wanted to give Allen a wake-up call much like Coach Zook gave Ray McDonald last week. Allen is a playmaker who can bring it. He led all tacklers against Miami racking up 11 total stops. He also played lights out versus Alabama. Brandon Johnson started last week at strong and by all accounts must have graded out high enough to retain his position as a starter. Johnson (6'1 200) saw action in all of Tennessee's games last season after transferring from N.E. Oklahoma A&M College. Last week's starter at free, Corey Campbell, will see plenty of time in the nickel packages.

Analysis: Tennessee wanted to test a lot of guys so that they would have some semblance of what was going on this weekend with Florida's multiple faceted attack. They did just that. But, it'll take more than one game to get them ready for Leak and company.

Edge:
 

GATOR DEFENSIVE FRONT VS. VOLS OFFENSIVE LINE

The Gators have a couple of new faces along their front four, both at defensive end. Joe Cohen moves from fullback to defensive end, a position he dominated at the high school level. JUCO transfer Jeremy Mincey lines up opposite Cohen.

Mincey benefited from participation in spring drills, and worked into starting position. He has outstanding speed and is quick off of the snap. The Statesboro, Georgia native also possesses solid strength. Cohen is extremely strong and also has good quickness. Steven Harris played well in a backup role last week. He was all over the place. The Gators have not been as physical at defensive end in recent years. However, each of these guys have demonstrated in practice the necessary intensity to play this position. Mincey and Cohen were average getting their feet wet in their first start, against an EMU line that directed a lot of cheap shots. But, they are expected to turn it up a notch against the highly respected Vols.

Florida headed into August with a pair of solid tackles in Ray McDonald and Marcus Thomas. The Gators also were hopeful that junior Kenny Parker could hold up for an entire season without having the back problems which have plagued him during his UF career. Defensive Coordinator Charlie Strong would also drop Steven Harris (6'4 267) from the end rotation to give Ray Mac and Thomas a breather. A funny thing happened along the way though. Harris and redshirt freshman Clint McMillian (6'1 270) have stepped up and appear to be ready to fill the gaps. Both have good quickness and their lateral pursuit is very good.

The Gators also return Channing Crowder, Earl Everett, and Travis Harris at linebacker. Crowder and Everett are coming off of outstanding 2003 campaigns and are showing no sign of drop off. Harris is a veteran at linebacker and defensive end. With the exception of Todd McCullough, the experience ends there. True freshmen Brandon Siler and Javier Estopinian received glowing reviews from the staff after their performance against EMU last Saturday.

The Tennessee offensive line returns All-SEC performer Michael Munoz (6'6 315) at left tackle and Cody Douglas (6'4 325) at right guard. Center Jason Respert has seen action in games throughout the past two seasons, but right tackle Aaron Sears and left guard Rob Smith have virtually no experience. Munoz stock is expected to rise significantly if he continues to stay healthy and play well. His strength, pass protection, is a hot commodity. Munoz is also a solid run blocker though. Coach Jimmy Ray Stephens will count on Munoz to assist left guard Rob Smith pick-up the various shifts and stunts that the Florida defense throws at them. Smith (6'4 309) is physical and run blocks especially well.

Cody Douglas' strength is also as a run blocker. He received his first starting assignment against the Gators last year. Douglas does not excel in pass protection. Aaron Sears was a freshman All-SEC performer last season, seeing action in seven contests. He missed half of the spring due to surgery on his toe. Sears, 6'4 315 is a solid run blocker as well. Jason Respert has moved to the center spot where he'll use his experience to make the calls. He was named alongside Munoz as a 2004 captain. Respert is not known as a physical player. He is a solid pass blocker. For years, Tennessee has employed the tight end as a block first, catch second position. This year is no exception. The Vols will start former Charlotte County High School performer Justin Reed (6'4 275) at the position. Reed did not catch a pass against UNLV two weeks ago.

Analysis: While talented, it's hard to imagine that Stephens has a tremendous comfort level with this line going into the Florida game. That's not to say they won't become an unimpressive group. But, big time SEC contests are not ideal settings for on the job training. They gave up a couple of sacks against UNLV. Tennessee will try to pound the rock. They want to establish the run and keep their defense off of the field, where the Florida offense won't be able to counter. I feel pretty confident about the success that Ray Mac and Thomas will have inside with help from Crowder. The keys up front will be the play of Florida's defensive ends. Can Cohen give Munoz a David Pollack-like battle? Can Mincey perform a smash and grab with Sears? Does Florida Defensive Coordinator Charlie Strong have a few tricks for the Vols?

Slight Edge:

GATOR SECONDARY VS. VOLS SKILL POSITIONS

Dee Webb, Reynaldo Hill, and Vernell Brown saw extensive action last weekend manning the cornerback positions for the Gators. Both Webb and Hill saw action in six games last season, so we're not talking about a wealth of experience here. While Webb was torched early for a big play, he had himself in position to make take advantage of two turnovers, but couldn't hang on to the football. There is no question that Webb is phenomenally talented, but he must take advantage of these situations for his team. Hill and Brown were in on several tackles, but will also tell you that they need to improve. Hill started the Iowa game. He has good speed, but has been slow to develop since transferring from Dodge City Community College. Brown should see plenty of action in the nickel. He has improved tremendously since his arrival at Florida.

Safeties Corey Bailey, Jarvis Herring, and Terrance Holmes were fairly solid this past weekend. Each brings a little experience to the secondary. Bailey and Herring have seen extensive action since beginning their Florida careers. That is especially true of Bailey. The senior from Miami led the Florida defensive backs versus Iowa. Herring is a junior who received Florida's most improved last spring. Holmes is a former receiver turned "hit man". Holmes is expected to become a physical presence as the season develops.

The Vols have a pair of freshmen pulling the trigger. Florida native Brent Shaeffer left Deerfield Beach for Rocky Top and mixed his running ability with roll out passing ability to lead the Vols to victory two weeks ago. Shaeffer (6'3 190) completed 7 of 10 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. He also had seven carries for 40 yards and a touchdown. Not a bad performance for a freshman debut. He shared time with 6'6 200 Erik Ainge. Ainge is not of the mobile brand. He completed 10 of 17 passes for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Tennessee running backs Cedric Houston, Gerald Riggs and Jabari Davis are outstanding. Houston and Riggs combined for 179 yards on just 25 carries two weeks ago. Houston has great speed, moves, and vision. He is the complete package. Junior Gerald Riggs has tremendous power like his Dad. Davis is a load the Gators had best keep an eye on. He had three carries for 16 yards. If they get caught up looking for the play action, they might get a quick dose of Davis or Corey Anderson on a fullback blast.

The Vols also have great athleticism at the receiver position. The leader is senior Tony Brown, who can really do it all. Chris Hannon is a burner with height, who can go get it. Brown and Hannon each hauled in three passes against UNLV. Quarterback turned receiver CJ Fayton caught a pair of passes as well.

Analysis: Florida's secondary will be tested in two ways this weekend. They'll have to contend with Tennessee's play action before bailing and jumping on the run. If they bite and get behind one of the Vols speedy receivers it could spell trouble. The Tennessee skills positions players mirror the Florida skills personnel in so many ways. Speed and talent at receiver. Three quality backs. Talent and athleticism at quarterback. Agh…but the difference is that Florida has the Leak the Vols coveted most. Sorry. The future looks bright for the Vols. But, that future is not now. Having a quarterback that can read SEC defenses is much different than a true freshmen quarterback that can punch holes in the likes of UNLV. Until I see it…

Edge:

GATOR COACHES VS. VOL COACHES

Florida replaced offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher with Larry Fedora. The Gators lose no continuity because both men remain on staff. Ron Zook replaced secondary coach Mike Woodford with Dan Disch, the former Head Coach at Jacksonville Ed White High School. Disch has coached several talented players into the collegiate level and now he'll get the opportunity to get them into the league. Most of the rest of the Florida staff has been intact for three years. After consecutive 7-5 seasons, Zook must show improvement during the 2004 season.

Tennessee's new running backs coach is Trooper Taylor. He arrives in Knoxville from Tulane. The Vols new tight ends coach is Greg Adkins, who came over from Troy State. He has experience at Georgia and Marshall. Coordinators Randy Sanders and John Chavis have been in their positions for many years. Phil Fulmer is now the dean of coaches in the SEC. His 113-28 record and .801 winning percentage are two reasons why the Vols have the best overall record in the conference over the past 10 years.

Analysis: The Tennessee staff has maintained its' core through the past several years. Until Zook puts up a few consistent W's the edge has to go to the Vols.

Edge:

ENVIRONMENT

The Gators have beaten Tennessee the past couple of times while visiting the river city. Tennessee has returned the favor visiting Hurricane Alley. Winning on the road is difficult enough in the SEC? Winning with a young team is supposed to be tougher.
Edge:


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