By Mark McLeod
Florida defensive lineman Marcus Thomas began the season like the kid who always had to sit in the back seat of the school bus…disruptive. Thomas sat out the first game of the year, but came ready to play last Saturday as he recorded a pair of sacks and manhandled the Golden Knights offensive line.
Thomas (6-3 296) saw limited action in practice in August, but when he was inserted into the lineup, he was a tough task for Florida's inexperienced offensive line. Thomas has great quickness, speed, and athleticism for a man his size. The senior has four tackles on the season- two tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.
He plays alongside a pair of senior tackles in Joe Cohen (6-2 296) and reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) who possess strength, athleticism, and speed. Cohen has accumulated a couple of tackles, a tackle for loss, and broken up a pass. Harris was a starter last season, but was suspended by the coaching staff until he got his priorities in order. Junior Clint McMillan (6-1 285) plays a key reserve role. McMillan is a former middle linebacker at Oviedo High School who has good speed and runs very well.
The Gators have tremendous speed and athleticism at defensive end. Senior Ray McDonald (6-3 280) has returned from having both knee's rebuilt. He is not full speed yet, but the coaches expect him to shake off the rust in one of the upcoming games and begin to once again reach his potential. Still, 80-90% of McDonald is better than most players. His leadership is also a boon for the defense.
You can't begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of Jarvis Moss (6-6 251). The junior has bulked up over the off-season and has yet to tap into the wealth of his potential. His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss' quickness is reminiscent of Georgia's Quinton Moses. Obviously, Moss hasn't yet produced to the level of Moses. Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) is another end with speed and quickness. However, his experience is even more limited than Moss.
Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Siler led Florida with six stops against Southern Miss. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who might even be a better leader. He is currently third on the team with eight tackles, including a tackle for loss, and quarterback hurry.
Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-3 234) is another centerpiece to an extremely talented defense. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his eight tackles. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.
Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a starter for the first time in his career. The senior has seen significant action on special teams throughout his Florida career. Crum played tight end early in his career and moved to linebacker in '03 where he saw very little action as a reserve outside linebacker. There is plenty of talent playing behind them, but no experience. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) have been impressive in practice and saw some playing time thus far. The Gators are in trouble if they lose Siler or Everett.
Overview: Experience, talent, and along the defensive line, some depth. Florida has toiled with depth problems up front for many years, but this is (finally) one year where Gators fans can rest assured that the level of play will be among the best in college football. Ray McDonald can play up or down giving the Gators additional quality.
The speed and athleticism at the defensive end position blend perfectly with the inside game. Jarvis Moss will be a major force to be reckoned with this season. Derrick Harvey doesn't have the experience, but should be very good very soon. Joe Cohen can play up if the Gators need some bulk at the position.
Siler and Everett are the only experienced linebackers at Florida. They must stay healthy. This team has been outstanding in the red zone, allowing opponents a mere touchdown in five tries. Furthermore, Southern Miss and UCF combined to convert only 8 of 29 (27.6%) third down opportunities.
That said, I don't think we've seen all that this defense is capable of doing. I would expect to see a few more wrinkles from the Florida defense. With the experience and athleticism along the front seven- the opportunities are endless.
Florida received an incredible boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of Avery Atkins departure. Smith has been praised by coaches for picking up exactly where he left off. Smith has terrific cover skills and there was no learning curve as he has a fine understanding of the defense.
Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who is best remembered for making the play of the game against Vanderbilt a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. Lewis is a former wide receiver who started several games in place of the injured Vernell Brown last year. He has an interception, which he returned for 35 yards.
Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) leads the team in tackles with 10. He also has two tackles for loss, has broken up a pass, and has an interception to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.
The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 193). The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. He has also picked off a pass this season.
Reserve safety Kyle Jackson (6-1 200) was a starter as a freshman, who struggled last season. However, he is playing very well and figures to be the first man out playing safety when Florida goes nickel.
Overview: The Gators first team guys are solid. Very solid. However, other than Kyle Jackson, there isn't any experienced depth to speak of. That is particularly true at corner where the numbers have been thin. This team will face their toughest challenge in Erik Ainge and a very talented group of receivers.
The Gators are third in the conference in pass defense efficiency and fourth in passing defense. They have given up 154 yards per game through the air. Obviously, much of that credit is due to a defensive front that has gotten pressure on the opposition. However, their three interceptions prove that they are in position.
Personally, I think the match-ups between the Vols wideouts and the Gators secondary will provide perhaps the most intense battles of the game. Florida's secondary faces one of the finest receiving corps in the country each day at practice. That provides a definite assist. There is no question that the Tennessee receivers will get theirs, but how much depends on the Florida offensive front.
Analysis: The Gators are tied for third in the conference in total defense. The Vols are third in total offense. Much of the Vols damage has been through the air. Quarterback Erik Ainge is the top rated passer in the league and the nation. There is no question that offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe is a remarkable mentor for Ainge and director for the Tennessee offense. Ainge has had ample time to throw because the Tennessee offensive front has provided solid pass protection. The Volunteer front has yet to give up a sack.
Florida has stressed that fact in practice and hope to change that statistic on Saturday. IT all starts up front. Period.
The Gators have to get pressure on Ainge, as the Vols boast a solid corps of receivers, led by Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain- two of the best in the conference. Pressure would greatly help out the secondary. For pure entertainment value keep an eye on the Tennessee passing game versus the Florida secondary.
By Randy Moore
Fans laughed when new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said his 2006 goal was for Tennessee to score at least 30 points in each of its 12 games. Two games into the season, fans aren't laughing anymore. Not out loud, anyway.
A Volunteer offense that was harder to watch than "Basic Instinct 2" in 2005 has improved significantly in '06. Tennessee hung 35 points on California in Game 1 and added 31 more against Air Force in Game 2, despite just seven possessions.
The difference? Cutcliffe, apparently. Check out the improvement made by his star pupil. Erik Ainge completed just 45.5 percent of his passes in 2005 and threw for a mere five touchdowns. Two games into '06, however, he has completed 74.5 percent and already has thrown for seven TDs.
Ainge, more than any other player, is responsible for the Vols' improved offensive output. Platooned with senior Rick Clausen in 2005, he performed horribly. Now he has gone from awful to awesome in one year.
"Last year was just a real strange set of circumstances, and I think it got in his head a little bit," head coach Phillip Fulmer said this week. "We had a senior quarterback who knew a lot about the offense. He (Ainge) was still new to it, and we asked him to do too many things at too young an age. That was part of it.
"And he was in and out of the games. There was a whole mess last year, and we don't want to go through that again. He's confident right now, playing very well within the framework of what we want him to do."
Another Vol who is bidding for Comeback Player of the Year recognition is wide receiver Robert Meachem. He caught 29 balls for 383 yards in 2005 but dropped a half-dozen. He made just one reception of more than 30 yards and did not score a touchdown all season. Two games into '06, however, he has caught 13 balls for 297 yards (22.9 per catch). Four catches have gained at least 40 yards and four receptions have resulted in TDs.
As with Ainge, Fulmer believes Cutcliffe's influence and a renewed self-esteem have enabled Meachem to flourish.
"I think he's playing with a lot of confidence right now," the head man said. "Trooper Taylor (receivers coach) has done a good job of coaching him, and David Cutcliffe has done a good job putting him in position to make plays."
Arian Foster, who averaged 148 yards per game in five late-season starts after Gerald Riggs went down in 2005, is off to a slow start in 2006. He gained just 69 yards on 17 carries in the opener, then added 22 yards on seven attempts before spraining an ankle in Game 2. Backup Montario Hardesty came off the bench vs. Air Force to gain 72 yards on 19 carries. Foster should be close to 100 percent for Game 3 vs. Florida but Hardesty has earned a share of the carries.
Tennessee coaches made their "Annual Tight End Pledge" in preseason, vowing to throw to the tight end this fall. This time they actually may keep their word. Starter Chris Brown has caught four passes for 47 yards in the first two games.
Minus three starters from 2005, the offensive line projected to be a problem area this fall. So far, that assessment has been 50 percent accurate. The blocking front has not allowed a sack through the first two games. That's impressive, even though Cal and Air Force aren't exactly noted for their pass rush. The offensive line has not been as successful run blocking, however. After a good showing vs. Cal (216 rushing yards), the Vols managed just 79 net yards on 32 attempts vs. Air Force.
As usual, the litmus test for Tennessee will be the Florida showdown. The Vols scored at will in Games 1 and 2 against weak defenses. They will face considerably more resistant this Saturday night against the Gators.
"We're getting into some real football now," Fulmer said. "These people we're getting ready to play (this) week and the following weeks are a lot different than Air Force's defense. I can assure you of that."