Refocused Florida looking to take out frustrations on 38-point underdog Vanderbilt

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Following a 1-2 start to SEC play, No. 18 Florida will look to take out its frustrations against Vanderbilt. 

Despite coming off a tough loss at Kentucky and a noon kick Saturday, UF coach Dan Mullen has no concerns about his team’s competitive edge heading into the homecoming game.

“Not at all. Not in any way, shape or form, promise you that,” Mullen said. “No matter how disappointed we are or frustrated we are, we can’t change those results. … You still have to move forward. You’ve got to take the frustration and use it to motivate you to find ways to improve, not let the frustrations create a big negative.

Florida quarterback Emory Jones runs down the field in the game against Vanderbilt last year at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.

“I promise this: it’s certainly not hard to get motivated to go play an SEC game. I don't care whether we play on Friday morning at 6 a.m. in the parking lot or we play at noon in the Swamp. I don’t care. But we’ll go play. There’s certainly not going to be any lack of motivation or desire to want to go out and win the game.”

The upset by UK knocked the Gators (3-2) out of College Football Playoff contention and down to fourth place in the SEC East standings. Quarterback Emory Jones and other leaders addressed the team in the locker room about responding to those results. 

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“We all said that we have a decision to make. This can either go one of two ways. We can be pouty, sad about it and lose out or we can stay focused and get back to the drawing board and work as hard as we ever have before to win out. So that's what we're going to do,” Jones said. 

“Coming off a loss, it’s not hard. We understood what we did wrong last game and now the message in the locker room is just to improve from it, go out there and play the next game better than we did the last. That’s all we’re trying to do, honestly.”

By all accounts, the UF players were laser-focused this week in preparation for the Commodores (2-3). When they first took the practice field Monday, receiver Jacob Copeland noticed a difference in their demeanor. 

“We came in and everyone wasn’t too loud because of the loss. But at the same time, I felt like everybody gained more focus for this week,” Copeland said. “Knowing that it’s homecoming, we’re back in the Swamp and the simple fact that losing is unacceptable. So everybody took that on the chin, we focused a whole lot more hoping that makes a better outcome throughout the rest of the season.”

Florida tight end Kemore Gamble runs down the field in last year's game Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.

Added tight end Kemore Gamble, “We’re super focused (at practice). We’ve been locked in, very locked in this week. And in the locker room, you can just feel the energy and how everybody wants to get back on the field and just make every other team on this schedule suffer.”

Vanderbilt defense vs. Florida's run game

Up next is Vandy, led by first-year coach Clark Lea. The Nashville native and former ’Dores fullback came over from Notre Dame, where he coordinated three consecutive top-30 defenses from 2018-20. 

Lea faces a tall task Saturday against the best rushing offense in the Power 5. Jones ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing yards (438) and second nationally among quarterbacks. 

“The quarterback makes it go,” Lea said of Jones. “I think anytime you start running the quarterback, it’s about teaching defensively who has responsibility for him as a runner. You start to split guys between perimeter screens and playing the outside after the quarterback. It takes alignment discipline, key discipline, post-snap footwork. There’s a fundamental technical approach to this that gives you the best chance to close the space.

“We’ll spend our time in practice preparing our plan to limit their explosive ability. Kentucky was able to do a good job of that at times, and we need to do the same. So our guys will be excited for that. It’ll be a good week of prep and a good challenge on Saturday.”

The Gators have faced a top-20 defense in each of their last three games, but Vanderbilt will be a step down in competition. Several steps, actually. 

The ’Dores rank 113th nationally in total defense and in the 100s in several other categories. Jones expects to see multiple looks from Lea’s unit. 

 “They do a lot of different things,” Jones said. “They have good players. We just gotta go out there and execute and do what we’re supposed to do. Everything will work out fine. We just have to stay focused, be disciplined and just lock in on everything.”

Vanderbilt's Ken Seals may be a problem

Vandy’s signal-caller is sophomore quarterback Ken Seals, a second-year starter. After an 0-9 record last season, Seals led the ’Dores to a 24-21 upset win at Colorado State in Week 2 and secured his first home victory last Saturday over UConn. 

Seals had success against the Gators in 2020, throwing for 319 yards on 22 of 34 passing with two touchdowns and an interception.

“They’ve got the same D-coordinator, but they do some different things and we're watching the film from last year too just to check out some of their personnel," Seals said of Florida's defense. “They're a talented team. They're good on defense, and we're gonna have to put some points up this week. I think we've got a good game plan from what I've seen so far, so I'm excited to run it.”

Seals had his first 300-yard passing performance of the season last week, while Florida surrendered a season-low 87 passing yards at Kentucky. The secondary could be without star cornerback Kaiir Elam for the third consecutive game and will need to limit big plays from Vanderbilt receivers Chris Pierce (290 yards) and Will Sheppard (288).

UF gave up a 41-yard touchdown pass play in the first quarter against the Wildcats, but limited them to 46 yards passing for the rest of the game.

“I think we clicked. When everybody stays on the same page, we’re pretty dominant,” Gators defensive back Tre’Vez Johnson said. “Just matching guys, covering guys, being physical, staying on them. Coach [Todd] Grantham puts us in the spot to make plays and we go out and execute. 

“Just keep the top on the coverage and we’re good. I think everybody in the secondary has a good attitude. They come ready to work every day. We’ve got leaders. … I know most of my teammates, we don’t like losing. So it’s on to the next. Beat Vanderbilt.”

Saturday's game: Florida vs. Vanderbilt

Who: Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-1 SEC) vs. No. 18 Florida (3-2, 1-2)

When: 12 p.m.

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

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