Tennessee fans must settle for wondering how defensive tackle Jordan Williams feels because he chose his words carefully this week when asked about the Gators’ failure to recruit him during his days attending Gainesville High.
“No, they didn’t,” he said, choosing not to elaborate.
When asked if that gives him extra incentive heading into Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium, Williams smiled politely and replied: “I’m just glad I came to Tennessee.”
He lowered his guard just long enough, however, to admit that the Florida rivalry is personal.
“Definitely. Definitely,” he said, becoming more emphatic with the second response. “Growing up in Gainesville, being around Florida and all that. I wasn’t necessarily a Florida fan, and …”
After a brief pause, he smiled and said, “I’m just glad I came to Tennessee.”
So is Trevarris Saulsberry, a teammate at Gainesville High who also signed with the Vols four years ago. He, too, was snubbed by the Gators. He, too, is excited about facing them.
“Oh, yeah,” Williams said. “We’ve both got a bunch of friends and family back home, so this is big for us.”
Tennessee’s defensive line coach noticed extra pep in the step of both Vols this week.
“I think they’re excited about it,” Steve Stripling said. “They’ve got a lot of family members coming. This is an important game for our program and all of our players but I think those two guys are taking it special.”
Even if Gator recruiters hadn’t snubbed him, Williams says facing Tennessee’s most heated SEC East rival would be exciting.
“The Florida game is a big game every year,” he said. “Even the sign in our room says ‘Beat our rival,’ and it’s a rivalry game. It's a big game and, being from Gainesville, I feel like I really have to prove myself."
He has been proving himself quite nicely so far. After playing defensive end at 256 pounds in 2013, the 6-foot-5 Williams bulked up to 284 to play tackle in 2014. Though undersized by SEC standards, he’s holding up surprisingly well against the run.
“I've been playing pretty good,” he said. “I just need to keep playing my game and doing what I'm doing."
Though pleased with Williams’ run support, his position coach wants more from him on pass plays.
“Jordan’s doing a good job,” Stripling said, “but Jordan has to win his one-on-ones in pass rush because he’s got that kind of athletic ability. He’s so focused on doing the job in the run game that maybe his pass rush hasn’t surfaced yet, so that’s what we’re focused on.”
Whereas Williams has been focused on his pass-rush moves this week, Saulsberry has been focused on getting healthy. The 6-foot-4, 296-pound redshirt junior missed Games 1, 2 and 3 due to injury before seeing backup action in Game 4 at Georgia. Stripling is very encouraged by the progress he has witnessed.
“I think he played 15 snaps, and I think he'll play more this week,” the Vol aide said. “We've increased his practice reps, so with him it's just workload and seeing how he holds up. He had a great week, so I see his role increasing. It's a nice boost for us to get a 300-pound guy in there and to get some of those other guys off the field, so I think he's bringing a lot to the table right now."
Saulsberry’s availability is vital because he provides much-needed depth at both tackle positions. To date the Vols have rotated three smallish guys at those two spots – Jordan Williams, Danny O’Brien (6-feet-2, 286) and Owen Williams (6-feet-2, 288). The iron-man routine has been taxing but the trio has held up well so far.
“We’re doing just fine,” Jordan Williams said. “It’s been me, OB (O’Brien) and Owen since camp, so we’re used to taking all of the reps. It’s nothing new. Our conditioning level is up. The best thing about being a little undersized is that we’re in excellent condition.”
Tennessee is riding a two-game losing streak on the season and a nine-game losing streak in the Florida series. Still, Williams says the Vols are positive and enthusiastic.
“Based on how well we’ve played this year, our brotherhood and camaraderie, it’s a great feeling going in,” he said. “I think we’re ready.”
After participating in three of the nine consecutive losses to the Gators, Williams is pretty sure the streak will end Saturday afternoon. He finds Tennessee’s mindset very encouraging heading into this Florida game.
"It definitely feels different,” he said. “Last year you could see guys weren't 100 percent in confidence. This year, I feel like everybody’s on the same page."
If so, the name at the top of that page is Jordan Williams. No one is more eager to face the Gators than the Gainesville guy they snubbed four years ago.
“I remember growing up all I heard on radio all week was about the Tennessee-Florida game,” he said. “It’s definitely a big deal, and this is my last time to go through it.”