Four days out from the first SEC home game of 2023, No. 21/19 Tennessee football took Haslam Field Tuesday morning to continue preparations for Saturday night’s divisional matchup with South Carolina. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. inside a sold-out Neyland Stadium, and UT announced Monday night that the Vols will don their all-black “Dark Mode” uniforms for the contest.
After Tuesday’s practice, defensive line coach Rodney Garner and running backs coach Jerry Mack met with members of the media to preview the upcoming tilt with the Gamecocks. The team has been methodical in their approach to the SEC home opener, focusing on each practice and rep one at a time with the ultimate goal of going 1-0 on Saturday.
Through the first four weeks of the 2023 campaign, Tennessee leads the SEC with 39.0 tackles for loss and 16.0 sacks. Garner’s unit has contributed greatly to those numbers and will look to continue applying pressure against the Gamecocks under the lights of Neyland Stadium.
The South Carolina offense is engineered by quarterback Spencer Rattler, who ranks top-10 nationally in passing yards (1,242) and second in the SEC with a 74.2 completion percentage. In his comments to media on Tuesday, Garner spoke to the importance of his unit staying disciplined and keeping Rattler contained during the course of Saturday’s game.
“Well obviously, (Rattler) is able to extend plays with his legs, so that’s really stressful on the defense, especially the defensive line,” Garner said. “We have to make sure that we’re very disciplined in our rush lane integrity. Also, we have to make sure we can finish on top of the rush and make sure we can get him on the ground. He’s a very good player … We just have to make sure that we’re disciplined in everything that we do. We have to make sure that we try and restrict it and keep him in the pocket.”
Tennessee also leads the nation’s premier football conference and ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense, averaging 229.5 rushing yards per game. Coming off a career day against UTSA, sophomore Dylan Sampson leads the league with 7.37 yards per carry and five rushing scores, with Jaylen Wright ranks seconds in the SEC with 6.93 yards per rushing attempt.
Heading into an SEC matchup, the battle in the trenches will be key in deciding Saturday’s outcome. Mack expects a talented South Carolina front to present a challenge and has encouraged his RB group to attack that challenge head-on — to constantly pursue the seams opened up by the offensive line.
“There’s going to be tough, tight runs in those windows and those lanes are going to be smaller as we get into more SEC play,” Mack explained. “You know some of those other games, sometimes that grass that the offensive line is creating is extremely big because of the competition that you are playing. Man, in the SEC, it is not like that. Those seams become smaller and smaller and when they do open up, they close a lot faster just because of the people that we are playing with. We have to do a great job of seeing those, making decisive decisions and accelerating when we get that opportunity.”