Florida’s linebacker situation appeared to be at full strength with the return of Amari Burney, who recovered a fumble and hauled in an interception Saturday in his return to the field, but unfortunately for the Gators the unit-wide clean bill of health wouldn’t last long.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Ventrell Miller, who went through practice during the week in a red no-contact jersey, left Florida’s win in the first quarter with an apparent shoulder injury, although he would return to the sideline midway through the second quarter.
“Hopefully he’ll be OK,” UF coach Dan Mullen said of Miller after the game. “You’re a young team, you’re going to be lucky to have a really experienced roster.”
With Miller out, former two-star prospect Lacedrick Brunson received an extended look, and he didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. The Miami native led all Gators in tackles in the first quarter with three, and at multiple points Brunson was able to sniff out Tennessee’s play-call early as the Gators jumped out to a quick lead and never let up.
Gators still banged up at key positions
In addition to missing Feleipe Franks and Kadarius Toney, Florida was once again without two of its top defensive playmakers. Senior defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga was in a walking boot before the game, while starting defensive back CJ Henderson didn’t dress out as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle suffered in Florida’s victory against UT-Martin.
With Zuniga out, defensive lineman Jon Greenard picked up the slack.
“You just look how thin we are right now. He did a great job,” Mullen said of Greenard. “I saw a bunch of tipped balls over there.”
And in Henderson’s absence, freshman Kaiir Elam earned the start, and he too made sure his presence was felt as the Gators limited the Vols to just 151 yards through the air while intercepting three passes.
Trask thrills in debut
In the build-up to Florida’s contest with Tennessee, much of the conversation centered around Florida’s quarterback situation rather than the opposition arriving in Gainesville. With Feleipe Franks lost for the season with the dislocated ankle suffered against Kentucky, Mullen turned to Kyle Trask to lead the offense in UF’s conference home opener. And by all accounts, Trask’s first half as a starting quarterback was a resounding success. The Gators took a 17-0 lead into the break, with Trask’s 12-for-14 first-half performance deserving much of the credit. The Manvel, Texas, native would finish the game having completed 20 of 28 passes for 293 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while redshirt freshman Emory Jones’ went 4-for-6 for 20 yards under center. Although Trask would toss two interceptions in the second half, the Gators were firmly in the driver’s seat and well on their way to a 31-point win over their SEC Eastern division rival.
“I was really happy both guys got to get in. I think both guys played fairly well, made some good plays, good decisions while they were in there,” Mullen said of the two quarterbacks. “Both led us to touchdown drives, so I thought they really managed the game well.”
At the conclusion of the first quarter, with Florida well on its way to a statement victory over the Volunteers, the Gators took an opportunity to honor the past. Florida welcomed back the 1994 football team to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to commemorate a group that kicked off a historic run in Gainesville. That team returned 14 starters and head ball coach Steve Spurrier. They helped UF to a SEC Championship and its second No. 1 ranking in program history. Spurrier addressed the 82,776 fans in attendance for Saturday’s noon kick-off, while making sure to put into perspective how important the mid-’90s were to the program’s development.