Rivalry week has arrived as the Gators are set to host the Tennessee Volunteers this Saturday in the Swamp. There’s been major emphasis placed on the importance of this game by the staff, as it’s been 20 long years since the Vols have taken down the Gators in Gainesville.
Florida struggled to have any success on the ground in week one, but quickly found their identity rushing for 327 total yards against McNeese. It’s important for this offensive line to make very few mistakes to establish both the passing and running game.
However, they can’t do it alone against this Tennessee front four. Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne has made it a priority this week to be more effective when it comes to pass protection.
“Just being tough with it, focusing on the little things, where are my hands at, where are my feet, my base,” Etienne said on pass blocking technique. “That’s just something I had to improve on, so I just have to focus on the little things, repping it over and over again, repetition is the greatest teacher, so you know just letting that be tool to teach me.”
Pass catching out of the backfield is also something Etienne continues to prioritize at practice every week. The sophomore had nine receptions for 66 yards in 2022.
“I mean that’s something that you can’t stop working on,” Etienne said on pass catching. “I mean, all season we emphasize it, but I mean passing nowadays, if you want to be an every play back you’ve got to be able to catch the ball, and that’s just something we work on daily.”
Little things like pass blocking and run protection can be the difference between winning and losing, as we witnessed in week one. The more physical team will have a major advantage this weekend.
“Very important, this is a very physical team we’re playing,” Etienne said on the importance of pass protection. “When it comes down to it who is going to be the most physical for four quarters straight so as long as I’m where I’m at, when I’m supposed to be there, that gives us an advantage as a team.”
The confidence level and chemistry between the running backs and offensive line has increased since the start of the season when it comes to pass and run protection. Both positions understand each other’s tendencies more heading into week three.
“Definitely, I say a lot better, I have a better communication level with the offensive line when it comes to pass pro now,” Etienne said. “We both understand how we play, and so they are able to help me, so that’s just a big help.”
Getting veteran center Kingsley Eguakun back on the field is huge in terms of communication between the offensive line. Everybody knows what they’re going to get from the redshirt junior.
“He’s kind of the field general when it comes to the offensive line,” Etienne said on Eguakun. “He’s communicating every play. Just having him back, you know we have somebody on the field that I can say going to make things more comfortable for them. So, they communicate more and he kind of can have their backs when they mess up somewhat and vice versa. Just having him back on the field is great.”
Tennessee currently ranks first in the FBS in tackles for loss and total sacks. This team understands what they’re going up against and how big of a rivalry game this is.
“Like I said they’re very physical so coming into the game we know we’re going to have to play hard,” Etienne said. “It’s a big rivalry game, so we know, we’re expecting their best, and they’re going to get ours.”
After a disappointing record against rivals last season, this team has taken a different approach to rivalry games in 2023. There’s an extra sense of urgency when it comes to teams like Tennessee.
“We have rivalry 101 week during camp, and that’s kind of like since they played the video during camp, all the teams prior to us being here and how the rivalry is – the teams like Georgia, Tennessee, Florida State, LSU, those SEC teams – we kind of have a chip on our shoulder right now. That’s just something we want to focus on moving forward,” Etienne said on prioritizing rivalries. “We have to dominate in every aspect of our game from here on out.”
The biggest key for the Gators this weekend is to not let Tennessee’s front four create consistent pressure off the edge. Graham Mertz was pressured constantly in week one as the Utes recorded five total sacks and seven tackles for loss against Florida’s offensive line. If the Gators want to win this game and continue their home win streak against Tennessee, the offensive line must keep improving in week three.
Florida is set to face Tennessee at 7 p.m. ET this Saturday in the Swamp.