KNOXVILLE – Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has a unique perspective on the secondary his unit is about to face at Florida.
Azzanni was on staff with the Gators in 2010 as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He helped recruit some of the current Florida DBs. He saw them in practice every day. He knows what his young receivers are up against.
“Unfortunately, I know those guys pretty good,” Azzanni said. “I know Marcus [Roberson] and Cody Riggs and I was there when those guys were coming in and they’re all very, very good players and they’re also well-coached.
“They play a million of them – they’re very deep. They’re experienced, they’re confident, they’re very physical and very fast. They’re everything you want in your DBs, so we’re going to have to play perfect in order to beat them.”
Indeed, the Gators boast one of the top defensive backfields in the nation. In addition to Roberson and Riggs, other standouts include cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy, Vernon Hargreaves III and Jaylen Watkens. Through two games, they have allowed opponents to average just 158.5 yards of passing per contest.
Facing an athletic and talented bunch like that is a scary thought for the Vols, who struggled to get open consistently at Oregon. The receivers accounted for just seven receptions for 81 yards against the Ducks. Outside of a 51-yard catch and run by Josh Smith, there were few plays where the receivers would be considered wide open.
“It doesn’t change,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian when asked what the Vols need to do to get open against the Gators. “We have to execute the pitch-and-catch plays when they’re there. We have to make sure we execute – same old things. We need to create separation at breaking points, we need to vary up our concepts and, as much as anything, we need to have accuracy and ball location.”
Figuring out the timing is also a challenge when it’s not certain who the quarterback will be. Bajakian said the quarterback competition could come down to pre-game warm ups on Saturday.
The receivers, will, however, likely get some help back this week after being incredibly short-handed at Oregon. Sophomore starter Pig Howard is on pace to return at Florida.
Meanwhile, Azzanni’s group of primarily freshmen and sophomores are in for one of their biggest challenges of the year. But he knows he can’t fully replicate what they’ll be up against
“I don’t know if you can simulate their physicality and their speed,” he added. “You’re talking about some of the best DBs in the country. I don’t know if you can simulate that. When you have a young group of receivers, and I mean this, I worry about them lining up and learning the right depths and blocking the right guy.”
Hopefully for whoever does start at quarterback, they will also find ways to get open.
• Out: WR Devrin Young, TE Alex Ellis, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, CB Riyahd Jones, WR Ryan Jenkins, LB Raiques Crump, WR Ryan Jenkins, K George Bullock, WR Johnathon Johnson
• Limited: TE A.J. Branisel, WR Pig Howard, LB Brent Brewer, LB Dontavis Sapp, S Max Arnold, CB Michael F. Williams, S Brian Randolph
On his Wednesday night radio show, coach Butch Jones confirmed that Howard and defensive end Corey Vereen (who missed the first three weeks) will both play at Florida. Linebacker Curt Maggitt will not play and Crowder is questionable.
• Howard continues to get limited work in practice. He’s going through walk-through drills, but goes over to the stationary bike for most of practice.
• Special teams were a big emphasis at the beginning of Wednesday’s practice. The Vols worked on fielding punts and on defending Florida’s dangerous special teams units.
• This has been one of the most secretive weeks of practice in UT’s recent history. There has been no video or camera allowed and media has been kicked out after a few minutes of open viewing.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga