GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The film sessions make it obvious what the Gators have to do Saturday against Tennessee. It’s something Cincinnati didn’t do and the Bearcats paid a hefty price.
It looks like this on film: Vols quarterback Tyler Bray drops back to pass, he surveys the field – on some plays it seems as if he has time to bend down and tie his shoe – and then he completes another pass without so much as a hand in his face.
In Tennessee’s 45-23 win, Bray was Manning-like in the most literal sense, joining former Vols star Peyton Manning (three times) as the only quarterbacks in Tennessee’s 115 years of football to throw for 400 yards in a game.
Bray finished 34-for-41 for 405 yards and four touchdowns, earning SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Tennessee’s offense was so efficient that all six of the Vols’ touchdowns came on drives of 53 yards or more, with four of the drives going for 70 yards or more.
Bray didn’t get sacked once after going down three times in the season opener against Montana.
Meanwhile, after defensive linemen Jaye Howard and Ronald Powell recorded sacks in Florida’s season-opening win against Florida Atlantic, the Gators came up empty in their 39-0 win over UAB.
If the Gators don’t put pressure on Bray – affecting the quarterback is what defensive coordinator Dan Quinn calls it – Bray might be in the running for another SEC weekly award.
“We need to get better with our pass rush,’’ Gators defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “In the UAB game, I think we could have gotten to the quarterback a whole lot more. They were releasing the ball pretty quick. We were coming with a lot of different pressures. They did a good job of keeping their quarterback clean.’’
Coming off a season in which the Gators recorded only 21 sacks – their fewest since 2002 – a more threatening pass rush is something that has been emphasized since defensive-minded coach Will Muschamp took over the program.
With players like Powell, Hunter, Howard, defensive tackle Dominique Easley and defensive end Sharrif Floyd up front, the Gators have a unit expected to be up to the challenge.
Vols coach Derek Dooley certainly respects Florida’s defensive front, calling it one of the most talented in the country on Monday.
“This is going to be a big test for our O-line,’’ Dooley said. “They are good.’’
A plus for the Gators as they try to turn up the heat on Bray is the return of Floyd, who missed the first two games due to an NCAA ruling on his eligibility. Floyd played in all 13 games as true freshman last season, finishing with 23 tackles, including 6.5 tackles-for-loss. At 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, he is athletic enough that Quinn moved him from tackle to end in fall camp to boost the pass rush.
Linebacker Lerentee McCray can see why.
“Sharrif brings size, speed, athleticism,” said McCray, a 6-2, 246-pounder who came to Florida as a defensive end. “He just brings a lot to that position that you can’t normally get from a guy my size. He’s a big guy and he’s fast, quick, powerful. He can play defensive end or defensive tackle, so he brings a lot to the position.’’
Besides those qualities that can be measured, Floyd’s return offers something that can’t be added up on a scale.
“It is going to be a big emotional boost,’’ Hunter said. “Sharrif is a great teammate and we all love having him on the field with us.’’
Linebacker Jelani Jenkins agrees with Hunter that Floyd’s return can be a difference-maker in the pass rush, helping free up the interior lineman and the linebackers.
“Sharrif has amazing talents,’’ Jenkins said. “He’s a great person, a great player, a great leader. I’m excited to have him back. He has great pass-rush ability. With him on the field, it makes everybody’s job a lot easier, definitely when the quarterback drops back to pass.’’
While Floyd’s return is a plus for the Gators, the Vols are uncertain how sturdy left tackle Dallas Thomas will be. The most experienced Vols offensive lineman, Thomas suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter of the Cincinnati game. He is expected to play Saturday, but if he’s not, sophomore left guard Alex Bullard will move over to tackle and freshman Marcus Jackson will step into his guard position.
“Obviously we’re concerned,’’ Bullard said. “He is one of the leaders on the offensive line. I feel we have the depth at offensive line that we can overcome that.’’
After allowing three sacks against Montana, the Vols kept Bray clean against Cincinnati and know they will have a much better chance at snapping a six-game losing streak to the Gators if they do the same on Saturday in The Swamp.
“We just need to continue to protect Bray and give him time, because if we give him time he is going to shred anybody we play,’’ Bullard said. “We’re really confident in that.”
With the Gators placing a heavy emphasis in practice this week on pressuring Bray, Jenkins expects some positive results after coming up empty against UAB.
“Not having any sacks is some place we need to get better at. That wasn’t something we were very happy about,’’ Jenkins said. “But, I mean, we did affect their quarterback and still got some hits on him as he was throwing the ball. Those are stats that don’t really show too much, but they add up and help us out in the long run.’’
The Gators envision Powell as perhaps their most dangerous pass rusher. Once Quinn arrived and began installing his defense, he moved Powell to a position he calls “buck,’’ a hybrid linebacker/end position that specializes in rushing the quarterback off the edge.
Muschamp would like to see Powell in Bray’s face some on Saturday.
“We would like for him to have more production,’’ he said. “I think as far as affecting the quarterback he had some nice hits the other night while pressuring the quarterback, as it was a timing passing game. I think he’s playing well at the point of attack in the run-game. He needs to be more of a productive player with sacks and hits.”
But Powell needs help.
“We need to get pressure with four guys rushing,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s the best pass defense in America.”