Vols Gearing Up For Hostile SEC Environment – University Of Tennessee Athletics – University Of Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football will face its first road test of the 2021 campaign on Saturday, traveling to The Swamp to open Southeastern Conference play at No. 11 Florida under the lights of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

 

Defensive line coach Rodney Garner and select Volunteer players met with media Tuesday to discuss preparations for the Gators and the team’s mindset going into a hostile SEC environment against an Eastern Division rival.

 

“This is what you came to Tennessee for, for moments like this,” Garner said. “You want to play on this stage, that is the beauty of this conference. There is nothing like it until you get to the NFL. There’s the SEC, you get to play the best of the best.

 

“We talk about moving the needle, I think we are going to find out how much the needle has moved when you’re going against elite competition … We’ve got to make sure we play a clean game, we play with relentless effort, we play with one another, and we play for that T on the side of our helmet. It’s about pride, you know.”

 

Sixth-year senior defensive lineman Ja’Quain Blakely will be making his third visit to The Swamp on Saturday and plans to lean on that experience leading up to the rivalry matchup. He has also shared advice with younger players making their first trip to Gainesville this weekend.

 

“I’m telling my teammates that haven’t been, this is going to be a hostile game,” Blakely said. “There’s going to be a lot of noise, there’s going to be a lot of crowd, a lot of talking. Just keep your cool and composure. That’s the best thing you can do, play your game because the crowd is going to be into it as they always are. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be very intense, but it’s going to be a great game as long as we keep our mind straight and keep going.”

 

Junior defensive lineman Byron Young and freshman receiver Walker Merrill will get their first taste of SEC action this weekend, and both players expressed eagerness to begin conference play on the road in their comments Tuesday afternoon.

 

“I’m really excited, first SEC game, on the road,” Young said. “This is why I came to Tennessee, to compete. I feel like it’s going to be a pretty good atmosphere so I’m ready for it, honestly.”

 

“I’m blessed enough to be able to go in there as a freshman,” Merrill added. “I’m very excited. We haven’t been away yet, (so) I haven’t had people in my ear, screaming at me, all that stuff. I’m really excited to be in that atmosphere, because I knew I wanted to experience it. I think it’s going to be really cool.”

 

Video and full transcript of Coach Garner’s media availability can be viewed below, along with select quotes from Tennessee players.

Rodney Garner Transcript (9.21.21) On his message to his unit after watching Florida’s film…

“Obviously, you have two really good football teams playing. It’s going to be a major challenge. Obviously, this is the best offensive line that we’ve faced, best group of running backs, best group of receivers, quarterback – it’s the complete package. We’ve got to elevate our level of play. We’re in conference now, it’s going to be much more intense. It’s going to require more strain. I mean, everyone has to strain harder, everyone has to do little extra things that it takes in preparation, in film study, getting extra rest, putting the right things in their bodies and all the little things it takes to play at a high level.”

 

On what has made their run defense so effective so far this season…

“I think we got the kids playing hard. They’re playing for one another. We’re playing vertically for the most part. We’re trying to create knockbacks. When you’re getting 10 and 11 hats to the ball, you have an opportunity to be successful. We have so much room for improvement when you sit there and look at the film. Just playing with more of an edge, even improving our fundamentals with our hat placement, hand placement and our pad level. Just disengaging and tearing off our blocks, just doing all the little things that it is going to take when you get in conference play. Obviously, you are not going to be better than anybody you line up against, so you have to make sure you’re fundamentally sound, so you have a chance to compete.”

 

On the difficulty of Florida’s run game with two mobile quarterbacks…

“They’re a two-headed monster, with Emory (Jones) and the Richardson kid (Anthony Richardson). They’re both very good. They’re both dynamic runners. Actually 15 (Richardson), may be more dynamic, as far as pure elite speed. But Emory is a seasoned veteran, he’s got three years in that system, so he totally understands what Mullens is trying to do. They do a great job with power, the counter reads, and they don’t put them in situations for them to beat them. They give them situations that are conducive in them being successful, via the RPO’s off the run. Then you throw in the quarterback run, which now they’ve got an extra guy we can’t account for with hats. So, it makes us have to make sure that we’re being really dialed in and detailed to doing all of the little things correctly.”

 

On what he thought of Byron Young’s first game as a Vol…

“Obviously, he’s very rusty. Byron, he’s an old guy but he’s a young football player. So, I think it hurt him not having those two games to really sharpen his skills and work on technique. But you know, you can tell he has a presence, and you can feel him in the game. Now, he’s got to get out there and work on minor details and things it’s going to take for him to play at a high level in this conference.”

 

On what he has seen from Matthew Butler this season…

“Matt is a guy that comes to work every day. He holds on to every word that you say. He wants to be good. He tries to take the coaching and the teaching and apply it to his game. He doesn’t take it personal. So many times these days, so many guys take things personal when all you’re trying to do is work on things to make them better players. He’s taken those things and gone out there and applied it. Obviously, he’s still got a lot of room to improve, we all do, me as a coach included. So, we all have to continue to elevate ourselves and be willing to look in the mirror and take that self-evaluation, group evaluation from others, and then work on trying to get better. And that’s the name of the game. For us to get better and for us to win.”

 

On how much his group has improved since he arrived…

“I think we’re moving the needle in the right direction. But every week, it’s a new challenge. And the challenge is, are we going to be better this week than we were last week? That’s what we said when we started on this journey, that we want to be better each day of practice. Each game, we want to see improvement and making strides to get where we want to be. It’s like climbing Mount Everest, we’re not going to be there overnight. We know it’s a process, but we’ve got to embrace the process. Unfortunately, now we’re in conference play, we’ve got to accelerate the process. So, we’ve got to get better in a hurry.”

 

On the rotation going into SEC play…

“I think, if you look at my career, I’m not playing more guys or any less guys than I (normally) play. Obviously, to play at a high level in this league, you’ve got to have depth. The one thing about big men, if you let them get out of gas, there is no refueling them in the game. I mean, it’s over, you better get ready for the next week. So, our plan is to try and keep those guys from running out of gas so we can play the fourth quarter like we played the first quarter. Obviously, we need to play the first quarter better so we can play better in the fourth. We’ve got to keep fuel in the tank, there’s no refueling. If we let them gas out, it’s over, so just trying to develop that quality depth. The only way they’re going to get better is out there in game prep. Practice is great but they’ve got to be able to go out there and sharpen the blade in that competitive feel.”

On Aubrey Solomon…

“Like I shared with Aubrey, he has hung in there, he’s making strides, I’m proud of him for staying the course. Obviously, he has a long ways to go. When we got here, there were a lot of things he needed to work on, but he persevered. We put him on scout team, he worked his way through, kept a good attitude, and he’s just showing that he wants to be a part of the program. That’s all we want from all of them. We want all of them to be good men, we want them to be successful in the game of football, we want them to be successful in the game of life, that’s what we’re trying to prepare them for. I was proud of him, the way he went out there and got his opportunity on Saturday. He went out there, he showed up, and he performed. He did a good job for us. Hopefully he will be consistent, and he’ll do the things that it takes to be able to gain and earn more playing time. That’s something that is earned, not given. That’s my message to them every day, they earn it. It’s not a right. Just because you came to Tennessee is no guarantee you’re going to play. You got to go out there every day, you’ve got to work hard, and you’ve got to earn that right.”

On the different challenge of the SEC…

“I would probably say I’m different. This is what you came to Tennessee for, for moments like this. You want to play on this stage, that is the beauty of this conference. There is nothing like it until you get to the NFL. There’s the SEC, you get to play the best of the best. You think you’re good? You’re going to get an opportunity to go out there and show (it) and be revealed. Unfortunately, on Saturday you’re going to be a contender or pretender. We are going to be able to find out, how close are we? We talk about moving the needle, I think we are going to find out how much the needle has moved when you’re going against elite competition. Obviously, Florida is elite, they’ve got elite players, they’ve got elite coaches, they got elite schemes. They do an outstanding job and it’s going to take our best. We can’t go out there and self-inflict wounds and have an opportunity to be competitive and compete with guys like that. We’ve got to make sure we play a clean game, we play with relentless effort, we play with one another, and we play for that T on the side of our helmet. It’s about pride, you know.”

On the pass rush and number of TFLs…

“When you sit there and look at the film, you see a lot of plays that you leave out there every game, missed tackles, missed sack opportunities, (pass) rushing better, getting to half of a man, working more of an edge. This week, it’s going to be extremely challenging, Florida has only given up two sacks. Obviously, the ball comes out really, really quick. But you’ve got the quarterback who is so elusive with his feet, he’s able to extend plays, so that’s  going to be a lot of stress. We’ve got to keep straining. We’ve got to strain harder and we’ve got to be able to finish plays. There are many missed sack opportunities where we could have had sacks. There are many more TFL opportunities where we should have made the tackle, instead of having missed tackles. Everything that we need to do to cleanup, I think when you look at the film there is a lot of stuff every week that we can do to get better. That’s been the message I’ve tried to stress to the guys is, you know, I think they may have thought last week I was spasming out on the sideline in that game, but I just didn’t think they played with an edge, weren’t razor sharp. I don’t want to just go through the motions, you know what I mean? We’re trying to sharpen our blade every time we go out there. Our reputation is on the line, that’s what I try to tell them. We walk on that field, our reputation is on the line.”

Player Quotes R-Senior DL Ja’Quain Blakely

On what they will need to do up front to try and contain Florida’s run game…

“Watching them up front, they have a strong o-line, so as a unit we need to play vertical, contain the quarterback, the running back (and) keep the running to a minimum. Just play hard and play vertical.”

On what the key to the successful run defense has been this season…

“I think the key to our run defense is basically just everybody is bonding together. We’re buying into what Coach (Rodney) Garner is telling us, playing vertical, relentless pursuit, just playing strong up front is the key. Everybody’s tied in, everybody’s ready to go.”

On how much better he feels this d-line is this year compared to last year…

“There’s a tremendous difference in the d-line this year than it was last year. I think it’s just because we’re all buying into the program. Coach Garner is a guy that expects the best out of you and is going to get the best out of you no matter how you feel or how you want it to come.”

On what he remembers from his previous trips to Gainesville and what advice he’s given his teammates that haven’t played there…

“I’m telling my teammates that haven’t been, this is going to be a hostile game. There’s going to be a lot of noise, there’s going to be a lot of crowd, a lot of talking. Just keep your cool and composure. That’s the best thing you can do, play your game because the crowd is going to be into it as they always are. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be very intense, but it’s going to be a great game as long as we keep our mind straight and keep going.”

 

Freshman WR Walker Merrill

On who he looks up to inside the wide receiver group…

“All of them, really. But slot specifically, I would say Jalin Hyatt and (Jimmy) Calloway are two dudes that I really look at to take stuff away from their play and add to mine. Obviously Hyatt’s super fast, so I don’t know if I can take much of that from his play. Calloway, he’s really just developed as a player. Even I can see it since I got here in the spring. Those are two great players that I try to take some stuff to utilize myself.”

On what about his play has made him contribute early as a freshman…

“That’s really a good question. I like to just go out there and do what I can do best, and that’s just play football. I try to keep the ball off the ground … I like to understand the offense, get extra work in with drawing on the board. I just don’t like messing up, so I’ve really got to know what’s going on.”

On going into Florida for his first career road game…

“I’m really excited for it, honestly, going into The Swamp. There’s a few guys that have been here (a couple years) that haven’t been to The Swamp, and I’m blessed enough to be able to go in there as a freshman. I’m very excited. We haven’t been away yet, (so) I haven’t had people in my ear, screaming at me, all that stuff. I’m really excited to be in that atmosphere, because I knew I wanted to experience it. I think it’s going to be really cool.”

 

Junior DL/LB Byron Young

On what he sees in the Florida offense…

“For me, really, containing the edge. Keeping the quarterback in the pocket. Those are probably the main two things. He’s a good runner, both (quarterbacks) are good runners. So, we’ve got to contain them, that’s probably the biggest issue.”

On playing his first SEC game on the road…

“I’m really excited, first SEC game, on the road. This is why I came to Tennessee, to compete. I feel like it’s going to be a pretty good atmosphere so I’m ready for it, honestly.”

On how he gets motivated and could motivate others…

“I feel like I’m kind of a role model. Where I’m from, not a lot of people make it. I’m the first one in the community to really go to college and do what I do, so I feel like, yeah, it’s a big help.”