The Florida/Tennessee series has had its share of hard hits. But, there is one hit that stands above the others. When former Florida strong safety Lawrence Wright knocked out Tennessee receiver Joey Kent — you just knew there wouldn’t be any Volunteers willing to make a return trip over the middle.
It’s bizarre to say, but despite dominating at the time, Tennessee never recovered. Florida went on to a 62-37 victory.
Mark McLeod: The hit that you made on Joey Kent (in ‘95) really turned things around. You’ve seen the Gators. Do you see a guy in the secondary making that play?
Lawrence Wright: “Well, let’s see. A lot comes from studying your opponent and understanding how the offense runs things. If they (the safeties) put their heart into it, study enough, and be prepared then the sky is the limit. They can do greater things than I did. But, somebody has to take some chances. Somebody has to be willing to hang out there and take some risks, but do it within the system. The quarterbacks and the receivers, too. You can’t have all of those drops. You’ve got to be kidding me? You’ve got to catch the ball. If it’s thrown behind you, work to get it. Everybody has to be willing to work together. That’s the great thing about a championship caliber team. They know how to do that.
“It’s the heart and the quarterback of the defense. If you have a good safety, he knows how to line everybody up and get them in the right position. That’s where that studying comes in. It’s not that you’re just playing your position, but you’re looking at where everybody else is lining up. You get really good when you start to understand where everybody else is supposed to be. If you have a young guy lining up wrong, you have to correct that before the snap. That is a critical, critical key.”
MM: When you hit Kent in that game the heart went right out of them. Don’t you agree?
LW: “It did. I don’t discount that. It changed the tempo of that game. When you see one of your guys spitting up blood or doing whatever on the sidelines they look at each other and say, ‘Oh these guys are for real. These guys aren’t playing around. They’re trying to win.’ It’s funny, but it changes the whole mentality of the game. Because even the guys on the sideline with you are looking at you saying, ‘Okay. That guy is over there spitting up blood. Oh, my God.’
“Looking at the scoreboard, a lot of people thought that we had lost. Down by twenty-one, certain elements have to happen and make adjustments. By making those, you have to find out the heart of the matter. Do we want this? Do we want a national championship? At some point in time it had to turn around. They had just gotten a turnover and they were trying to drive to make it 28-7, I think or 21-0, something crazy like that. (Defensive coordinator Bobby) Pruett had put in this defense because he realized that I had good vision and an understanding of what the quarterback does. I was put deeper than everybody else, so that nobody would get behind me. But, I’m also able to respond to everything in front of me. It was our two-minute drill type defense. I just took a couple of steps back and when I looked at Peyton (Manning), he was rolling out and Joey was going upfield. I said, ‘Naw, you’ve got to be kidding me. He’s not going to throw that ball,’ but he threw the ball and the rest is history. That’s part of the preparation of coaches, players, trainers, everybody being prepared to do their job. That’s the nucleus of what makes teams excel in big games like this. There’s a saying that we use…Big time players show up in big time games. You’ve got to show up and when you show up, you’ve got to be prepared to play like you’re showing up. That’s what separates the average from the above average. It doesn’t matter if you put the ball on I-95 or the parking lot, you’d better come out ready to play. Astroturf, it doesn’t matter. Snow, it doesn’t matter. The desert, it doesn’t matter. You’d better be ready to play. Preparation, focus, and you’ve got to go out and have fun.”
MM: Now you were with (Joey) Kent at the Senior Bowl right? What was that like?
LW: “Joey’s a real cool guy. He’s very laid back. We hung out and were talking all week. The funny thing was that we were hanging out and he said, ‘I want you to meet my Mom and Dad.’ So all week we hung out and at the end of the week I finally met his Mom. She says, ‘Oh boy, I’ve been looking for you. You’re the one who hit my son like that? Oh boy, I’d I’m going to beat you.’ I said, ‘Ma’am. I was just doing my job. I was really just doing my job. I’m so sorry.’ She kept saying that she was going to beat my behind.”
MM: How do you think Florida matches up with them?
LW: “It really doesn’t matter. I don’t care if the Gators are 0-10. A game like that, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who scores how many points. It doesn’t matter how much they have scored previously. That game falls down to who is the best prepared. Who makes the least mistakes and who is the best prepared will win this game.”
MM: What do think the score will be?
LW: “I think the score will probably be 28-24 or something like that.”
Former Florida strong safety Todd Johnson laid out more than his fair share of opponents while starring in the Gators defensive backfield. Johnson’s zip code was seemingly wherever the football was located. His ability to rattle headgear, read defenses, and his strong sense of team has earned him praise from Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
Johnson will join his Bears teammates to watch the game. On Sunday, first place Chicago will face division rival Detroit at 1pm (EST) at Soldier Field. If the Gators win, don’t be surprised if somebody brings that up to Lions reserve fullback Shawn Bryson. The Bears comfortably lead the series 83-62-5.
“I think this game will set the tone for our whole season. UT is a much different team than last year, so we will really have to play our best to beat them up in Hillbillyland. If our d-line can’t pressure the quarterback, then I think (Tennessee offensive coordinator David) Cutcliffe will look like a genius. I think Ray Mac (McDonald) and the boys will bring the heat, so the DBs will be able to make some plays on the ball. I also think that Chris Leak is experienced enough now to handle this kind of game and will get the ball to our speedsters before the rush gets by them. I think it will be a typical hard fought battle that comes down to the end. And hopefully this year we won’t let the refs decide the game like we did last time at UCheat. One thing I know for sure is there will be four Gators (up here) in Chicago living and dying with every play.”
Former Florida linebacker Kavin Walton was an early standout on special teams. Special teams are always important in big games. Walton had the luxury of playing on championship teams and gives us some insight into what he sees after visiting the campus two weeks ago.
“I feel they’ll play very well against Tennessee. I think the game will come down to field position. It always seems to in these games. They have to have passion for the game. We were there for the first game and that’s something that I talked with Mark Campbell about then. It may just been the first game, but they didn’t seem to have the passion. It seems as though they thought the same thing, because they got things corrected last week. I hope they will fly to the football and sacrifice their bodies like we used to do. When we hit somebody they were flying everywhere. The running backs that Tennessee has are really good — they run strong. It’s going to take a lot of effort from the d-line to mix things up. If they can penetrate and get to that quarterback that should take the pressure off of those linebackers to make plays. It appears to be more gap control than what we did, which was just go. Kevin Carter, Ellis Johnson, Henry McMillan, and those guys just dominated because they were turned loose. They really went after that ball. That helps the linebackers and secondary guys. A lot of good things happen if you can establish pressure.”
“From an offensive perspective, I’d like to see them put Leak under center at times and establish a running game. I think that we have the best wide receiver tandem in the country. If Leak gets time he should be able to make those plays. I’d just really like to see them put him under center. We had a passion for special teams on that ‘96 team. If Coach Meyer were to go back and look at that film, he’d see guys like Sammy McCorkle, Eli Williams, Jacquez Green, and me. We sacrificed our bodies and took a lot of pride in making plays. Everybody chipped in. We all took pride in that and that’s what winners do. It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to win it. The outcome, I think will be 36-24 or so.”
MM: We hope that you enjoyed this piece. If so, we’ll be back with other former Florida greats and hope to get you ready for Saturday. My pick…Florida 28 Tennessee 17