Why the Vols can run all over Florida despite nagging injuries

Tennessee is banged up. Definitely not “panic button” banged up, but still “slight cause for concern” banged up heading into the most important game of the season thus far – against Florida.

All initial reports suggest Cedric Tillman and Jabari Small are going to be fine after both exited early in Tennessee’s 63-6 win against Akron in Week 3. Keeping them off the field in a blowout was merely a precaution and the right decision for coach Josh Heupel to make.

But Small’s upper-body injury is nerve-fraying in regards to his long-term future as Tennessee’s RB1. Small has endured shoulder problems dating to last season, and his apparent re-aggravation is not ideal before the Vols play their first conference game.

Dylan Sampson, Tennessee’s No. 3 behind Small and Jaylen Wright, also exited early in Week 3. The Vols likely will have Small back against the Gators, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are only 2 running backs on the roster Tennessee can report with 100 percent certainty as healthy.

Yet, in the short term, Vols fans should not be worried. All eyes are focused on the Gators, and despite injuries Tennessee will run all over Florida in Week 4. There is no reason for the Vols not to rush for 200 yards at least against this Florida defense.

Here’s what I’m on about.

Josh Heupel’s offense may be known for its up-tempo, dink-and-dunk, spread-play style before the 50-yard kill-shot, but that misses a basic reality. Heupel and offensive coordinator Alex Golesh have always had a run-based mindset.

Heupel has overseen 16 games as Tennessee’s head coach. In all but 3 of them, there were more rushing attempts than passing attempts. And in most of those 13 instances, it was by a margin of 15 or more. The 3 games in which Tennessee did not attempt more rushes were against Alabama and Georgia in 2021 and Pitt in 2022 – three teams with elite to borderline-elite play from the front 7.

Tennessee is 7-0 in games in which it rushes for more than 4.75 yards a carry, and 3-6 when it does not. The Florida Gators are allowing opponents 4.76 yards a carry so far this season. That’s the second worst average in the SEC and the seventh worst among Power 5 teams.

Florida allowed 6.2 yards a carry against South Florida last week and 5.9 yards a carry against Utah in Week 1. The Gators did well against Kentucky (which was without Chris Rodriguez Jr.), allowing just 1.8 yards a carry. And there’s another factor that should worry Gator coach Billy Napier. Utah’s Cam Rising and USF’s Gerry Bohanon are dual-threat quarterbacks, and Kentucky’s Will Levis is not.

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Bohanon rushed for 6.8 yards a carry against the Gators, while Rising rushed for 13 yards a carry on 7 attempts. The Gators’ problem is similar to the one Tennessee had last season – they have not contained the quarterback scamper.

It’s not like running backs aren’t having fun against Florida, too. In the first quarter last weekend, USF converted a 3rd-and-18. On a 21-yard rush.

There’s more. The Gators missed senior linebacker Ventrell Miller in a big way Saturday, and there’s been no update about his status for the Tennessee game. If Florida doesn’t have Miller, multiply everything you see here by 2.

Florida’s front 7 seems to get thrown off by motion. Here’s a look from a scoring play by the Bulls in Week 3:

Linebacker Amari Burney (No. 2) was out of position because outside linebacker Brenton Cox (No. 1) didn’t pick up the option to the running back. Whether or not Small plays Saturday for Tennessee might just be irrelevant – Hendon Hooker should have a field day.

The Gators were fooled by a fake handoff by Utah as well.

Heupel and Golesh haven’t executed many designed runs for Hooker yet, and that itself is by design. No risk for injury and no reason to divulge your complete playbook to non-conference opponents like Akron and Ball State. Tennessee has slowly started adding the speed option to its 2022 arsenal, though.

Tennessee obviously had this in arsenal going back to last season, but you didn’t see it much before Week 3 for a reason. Here’s USF executing the same play perfectly.

Tennessee has strong receivers, one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC and is playing a defensive front that has a lot of athleticism and talent. But it’s not a defensive front that can match up against the Vols right now.

Where Florida really shines on defense is against the pass. The Gators stacked the box and locked Bohanon down in Week 3, winning a tight game in the end. For all his success on the ground, Bohanon completed only 12 of his 28 passes for 112 yards against a Gators pass rush. with bad intentions when it matters.

The Gators also have a deep secondary that features 2 All-SEC defenders and 1 All-American in Jason Marshall. They have talent that can compete with Tennessee’s deep supply of capable receivers.

It’s never this simple, and it’s always easier said than done. But this game appears to be a no-brainer. Establish the run, sit back and watch.

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