Gators Breakdown’s David Waters Previews Tennessee-Florida in Gainesville

Gators Breakdown's David Waters Previews Tennessee-Florida in Gainesville

Tennessee football opens up SEC play Saturday night against bitter eastern division rival Florida in Gainesville.

Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.

This week, Gators Breakdown’s David Waters talks the importance of this game for Billy Napier, how the game will be won in the trenches and more.

More From RTI: Everything Tennessee Coaches And Players Said About Florida

How important is this game for Billy Napier and the 2023 Florida team?

“I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and I think this is the first time going into a game where Napier has some pressure on him. Not hot seat talk or getting fired in 2023 or anything like that but I do think in year one you get a lot of passes. But this is year two. Now, coming off the Utah loss that finally put some pressure on him going into a game.

For the 2023 season, you want to start off SEC play the right way. The first part of the schedule for Florida is pretty tough. Tennessee this week, Kentucky two weeks later. They would like to build some momentum before they have to hit the road again and go to Kentucky in a couple weeks. Plus, this is a home game. I think Billy Napier’s teams have played much better at home than on the road but with the spotlight on Florida, this being one of the bigger games of the weekend, I think Billy Napier can build some good will with Gator Nation by getting a big win at home.”

What was the buzz like around Graham Mertz in the preseason and how would you assess his performance through two games?

“Pretty much what we heard is pretty much what’s played out so far for Graham Mertz. It was, he’s taken steps since spring and is a quarterback Billy Napier is comfortable with in this system and especially in the short to intermediate depth of the passing tree. It’s played out exactly that way. He’s living in the short to intermediate range. He’s not taken many shots down the field through two games. I think game one against Utah it was mostly because the offensive line was struggling and Florida didn’t have time to throw it down field even if they wanted to. Against McNeese, they (McNeese) were playing three high safeties for most of the game and he was taking what the defense was giving him.

But that’s what we were hearing through fall camp— that he’s going to live in the short to intermediate range as we’ve seen through two games so far.”

Who are the best playmakers on Florida’s offense?

“You have to go Ricky Pearsall at receiver. His numbers bear it out for the first two games so far this season— leading receiver for the Gators. Been used in a different way this year. Been used more so than last year. Some of that goes back to Graham Mertz. It’s more catch and run opportunities for Pearsall than I thought we’d see. With Anthony Richardson struggling in that short to intermediate range last year it was really limiting yards after the catch opportunities for Florida. That’s a bigger part of the offense this year.

Also, true freshman Eugene Wilson III— you can tell with the ball in his hands he has a different type of speed. Through two games Florida has found some creative ways to get him the ball including some direct snaps last week. You can tell that the coaching staff really wants to build him into the offensive game plan and get the ball in his hands in multiple ways.

That’s without giving the running backs— Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson— their due. If they get going that’s when the Florida offense is at its best.”

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Florida’s defense?

“Strengths right now would be that they’re deeper up front than they have been in quite some time. That will be put on its first real test this week with the pace Tennessee wants to run at. They are deeper, but we’ll find out how deep this weekend against Tennessee. I’d say linebacker play has taken a huge huge step up with Shemar James and Scooby Williams in their second year in this defense. New defensive coordinator but pretty much the same defense that they ran last year. They’re more athletic and faster at linebacker.

Through two games they haven’t been able to create a lot of pressure. Not a whole lot of tackles for loss and no turnovers yet— though they’ve been really close to getting turnovers. You can tell they’re faster, they’re more disciplined, they play a lot more sound football but just two sacks against McNeese and none against Utah. As they enter SEC play, you’d like to see the sack numbers rise up a bit.”

What are the biggest keys for Florida to win?

“I still think it’s running the ball. The quarterback has thrown more than 30 times five times since Billy Napier has been at Florida, small sample size, but they’re 0-5 when he throws it 30 times. The highest passing attempts in a Gator win under Billy Napier is 28 and that was last year against Texas A&M. No matter what the quarterback does, even if he throws for 300-400 yards, it hasn’t mattered. If the run game doesn’t get going, Florida doesn’t win games. The key is Florida has to be able to run the ball. I have high doubts that they come out of Saturday with a victory if they don’t run the ball well.

On defense, it kind of goes the other way. Stop Tennessee’s running game. Both defenses want to come in and make the other quarterback beat them. Both teams, if they’re running the ball, they are completely fine with that and it’ll carry both offenses a long way. For Florida, it’s a different type of rush test than week one against Utah with the way Tennessee spreads you out. But the key for Florida, against a new style of offense, is to be able to continue to stop the run.”

Score Prediction?

I’ve pinged back and forth on this.

Tennessee 27, Florida 20

Author: Ethan Moore