But a new year brings a new level of budding confidence for a unit that is working daily to improve upon its dismal 2014 numbers. Tennessee sits at No. 17 nationally in rushing, averaging 246 yards a game, and feels like a more mature offensive team up front heading into Gainesville Saturday.
“They’re a lot more ready for this than they would have been a couple of weeks ago, and I think that’s just the process of the season,” offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “An example would be in the second game, we had some problems with protection and picking people up when we were trying to throw the ball deep, but in this past game we picked them up twice in a blitz and hit the ball deep, so they’re continuing to get better in a lot of things.”
Granted, the improvement in last Saturday’s game came against an FCS opponent at home, but it’s still encouraging heading into an enormous divisional game against a rival that’s won ten straight against the Vols.
“Every game has a story and you never know what that story’s going to be,” DeBord said. “This one’s going to have one too. We’ll just wait to get in it to see what we’ll be able to do.”
Coleman Thomas started last year’s contest against Florida as a freshman right tackle — a position he feels less comfortable playing than his natural center spot. The sophomore is now at center and sees his unit as one that has had early success yet still needs to improve as they get set to face a defensive front that moves around at will and forces plenty of tackles for loss in the backfield.
“That goes just through preparation throughout the week watching film,” Thomas said. “They’re a great defensive line and they’re very active. It’s going to be a good challenge for us and we’re just going to prepare this week and hopefully it will pay off for us.”
While Tennessee’s offense practices with crowd noise piped into speakers on Haslam Field to prepare for a raucous Ben Hill Griffith Stadium atmosphere, the defense should be heading to its least noisy venue yet.
Florida’s crowd in The Swamp will surely want to tone the noise down when its team is on offense, so the Vols’ defense will be able to hear itself make calls instead of aligning itself through the emphatic cheers of 102,000 fans trying to create havoc for the opposing offense inside Neyland Stadium.
"I love our atmosphere at home, but it is tough on defense," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "I don't know what you do if you have to get a check to the defensive lineman. I can't hear on the headsets, so it's fun, but it can be a bit problematic at times. I don't think there will be any problems in The Swamp."
Freshman middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland believes the quiet atmosphere could help him make the correct calls and set the fronts without the adversity of having a loud crowd bearing down on him.
"It will be pretty good for us," Kirkland said. "Playing in Neyland is unbelievable. 'Third down for what' is an unbelievable environment for both teams, but really I don't know how different it will be because Gainesville is Gainesville."
Florida head coach Jim McElwain hasn't deemed Grier the clearcut starter for Saturday's game, and defensive coordinator John Jancek said his unit will prepare for both quarterbacks throughout the week.
"We're preparing for both of them really," Jancek said. "The offense doesn't change a whole lot. The only thing they may do with Harris is have some designed quarterback runs. They haven't had that in the first two games. The offense looks like it didn't change much when either of them are in the game, but certainly that could change this week. We'll just do our diligence and be prepared for it."