9/12: Gators discuss rivalry week, improving pass rush, converting in red zone & more

With the Florida Gators beginning preparations for their first Southeastern Conference opponent of the 2011 season, number of prominent players were made available to the media on Monday to discuss how the team is progressing heading into their showdown with the Tennessee Volunteers on Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m. in The Swamp.

DIFFERENT TAKES ON FIRST RIVALRY WEEK

Of Florida’s three main rivals, Tennessee is always the first they face each season, and different players have varying perspectives about the week in general. While all believe it is important in terms of being the first SEC game of the season, some care very much that it is against Tennessee while others are not fazed whatsoever.

“It’s a big rival game. It’s probably my favorite rival game – playing that and the Florida State game,” said redshirt junior defensive tackle Omar Hunter, who expects the contest to be physical. “Growing up I used to always watch the Florida-Tennessee rivalry. Being from Georgia, both of those teams are hated, but I always grew up watching the Florida-Tennessee game has always been fun to me. These two teams hate each other and they always love to play. Everyone gives it their all and they all enjoy playing in this game.”

For redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley, a life-long Gators fan, it is all about getting the win. “We start out SEC play against a tough opponent each year, which is Tennessee. To walk out of the game with a ‘W,’ know that you’ve played fairly well, that gives you some confidence and everything leading into other SEC play,” he said.

Sophomore running back Trey Burton is just ready to play. “It’s a big game for us and it’s always fun to play SEC games because they count,” he said. “It’s a conference game. Our goal is to get to Atlanta, and if we don’t wint his game then we won’t be able to get to Atlanta. These are obviously a little more important than the other games.”

Feeling slightly different is redshirt sophomore linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who cares more about giving maximum effort at all times than the team he faces. “We try to come out every day and attack each opponent the same,” he said. “Tennessee – they probably have more talent [then our first two opponents] – but we still like to play the best that we can every week, it really doesn’t matter what opponent we play.”

STEP ONE: IMPROVE THE PASS RUSH

Florida did not register any sacks against UAB on Saturday, which head coach Will Muschamp said was OK simply because the opponent got the ball out fast and did not allow many opportunities to do so. “Not having any sacks is some place that we need to get better at. That’s something we were very unhappy about, but we did affect the quarterback and still got some hits on him as he was throwing the ball,” Jenkins said. “Those are always stats that they don’t really show too much but they add up and help us out in the long run.”

Nevertheless, the players are well aware that improving in that area will be a major focus this week heading into SEC play. “This week in practice we need to have a good pass rushing session. We need to get better with our pass rush as far as the defensive line goes,” Hunter noted. “In the UAB game, we could have got to the quarterback a lot more, and I think that’s a big emphasis on what we need to do this weekend.” Redshirt junior LB Lerentee McCray agrees. “The pass rush emphasis is going to be a real big deal after that last game with us not getting any sacks. Just mostly our get-offs. It’s probably going to be a real big emphasis by coaches this weekend at practice.”

STEP TWO: CONVERT IN THE RED ZONE, SPREAD THE BALL AROUND

Though Florida’s offense has performed well over the last two games, the running game has led the Gators in both contests. “Like any quarterback, you want to be able to throw touchdown passes and everything, but the run game has been working,” Brantley said. “The pass game has really been working also, we just haven’t gotten the ball into the end zone through the air. That’s fine as long as we’re putting points on the board and coming out with the W – that’s all that matters to me.”

He recognizes this as well as the fact that Florida has been unsuccessful in converting most of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. “We ran the ball real well. Once we got to that red zone we just kinda stalled,” he said. “I’m sure this week we’re going to concentrate on it. Once you get in the red zone you got to score. Field goals are nice, but you’d like to punch it in the end zone. […] Everything just gets a lot harder in the red zone. It’s a smaller area of field. We got the right plays for it and everything, we just got to execute them.”

Brantley is also aware that the passing game must open up, but he will not do so at the risk of attacking covered players. “[Long passes are] in the game plan and everything, but we take what the defense gives us. That’s one thing Coach [Charlie] Weis stresses to me and that’s what we’ve been doing,” he said. “All the receivers are built-in to this offense and they completely understand. They know as much as we check down or have to check down, sooner or later it’s going to open up. If they get frustrated or anything, they might miss that opportunity for a big play or something like that to happen. You always want to throw down field, but we’ve got great receivers and one-on-one I know the receivers can get open. We’re just going to go out there and take what the defense gives us.”

HUNTER A JOY TO HAVE AS A TEAMMATE

Taking his first carry in the orange and blue uniform into the end zone for a touchdown on Saturday, freshman fullback Hunter Joyer has been impressing teammates on both sides of the ball as well as the entire coaching staff. His focus, dedication and talent is something that his teammates respect and enjoy competing against.

Jenkins, who encounters Joyer in the backfield from time-to-time when rushing the passer during practice, noted that his strength is a major plus. “[Jon Bostic and I] both have a lot of respect for Hunter Joyer. He’s a great player. He’s real low to the earth, so you have to come at him real low. He’s strong,” he explained. “I remember first seeing him in the weight room benching like 315 [pounds] like it was easy. A lot of guys can’t do that at all. He’s a great player, and I love having him on the other side because we get to practice against him. We’re going against one of the best to prepare for other teams.”

Burton is working with Joyer as a part-time fullback himself and has seen first-hand how his preparation translates onto the field. “Coach [Brian] White works with both of us. Hunter is doing an unbelievable job especially coming in as a freshman,” he said. “I’m real proud of him and he’s learning real fast, and he’s a great kid. He’s unbelievable. He comes in and works real hard. He’s not a guy that will go out and talk a lot. He’s a really soft-spoken guy. He’s really quiet, doesn’t speak too much.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

» Hunter said the cast he has been wearing is a removable one that is heavy and has made it “difficult at times to do certain thing I would like to do.” He hopes to have it off before Saturday’s game.

» Hunter on the defensive line stepping up: “As a defensive line, we talk about it before games, that we want to put the pressure on ourselves because we’re the most experienced group on the field.”

» Hunter on Tennessee-week motivation: “It is a little different coming to the Tennessee game and not seeing the pictures, posters. New coaching staff and they got their own little thing they like to do and I’m enjoying it.”

» Hunter on how this staff prepares for each game compared to the last one: “They’re both very similar. They’re all about mental focus during practice and during the week, coming in and getting a lot of tape in, a lot of studying in and knowing what you have to do before the game starts. I think they’re both very similar in that aspect.”

» Brantley on how Weis has helped him improve: “He’s helped me out in a bunch of ways – mostly mentally. I think I’ve grown up a lot since last year, just forgetting about plays – even good plays and bad plays – you got to move forward. You can only worry about what’s going on right then and there; you can’t worry about the past.”

» Brantley on redshirt senior running back Chris Rainey being the leading receiver: “He has great hands and once he has the ball in his hands, he can do dangerous things. Coach Weis tells the receivers to keep blocking because you never know who he’s going to make miss and what he’s going to do.”

» Brantley on the intensity inside the locker room for Tennessee week: “Inside our locker room it definitely has the same intensity as it always has been. […] There’s been a lot of great memories. It’s always a big rivalry and always will be I believe.”

» Brantley’s opinion of the new offense: “It’s completely changed. Under center, I-back, just we’re going to run the ball at you. It’s completely changed and I think it’s changed for the good around here.”

» Brantley on how Weis uses Rainey: “He’s not a real downhill power runner, but Coach Weis – he’s able to get those running backs out on the edge, and I think that’s where Chris is most dangerous – in the open field out on the edge. Coach Weis just does a great job suiting the offense around what his players do best.”

» Brantley on if what Rainey can do ever shocks him: “He still surprises me sometimes, but I just know he has it in him. When I watch film on Sundays, when I come in and watch the game, because sometimes I’ll be faking away or I really don’t get to see it. It surprises me a lot. First game when he spun and scored that touchdown, I had no idea that he made that spin or anything. He definitely surprises me.”

» Brantley on Muschamp letting Weis handle the offense: “Coach Muschamp’s our head coach and everyone knows that. He’s not completely distant from the offense during practice; he overlooks the offense at times. We understand that Coach Weis is the main offense, but it’s not too much of a difference because he’s still around quite a bit.”

» McCray on sophomore safetyMatt Elam being the leader of the secondary: “Matt Elam has taken on his role very well. He’s quiet – he pretty much leads by example in the secondary. He has to talk to the other guys to get the guys going sometimes, but he’s doing a good job taking on his role as just being the quiet guy who leads by example.”

» McCray on if he plays harder against SEC opponents: “I just look at it as being a consistent player – just going out and playing your best every game. You can’t play better versus one team and worse versus another team. You just have to go out and put a consistent level of play every time you get on the field.”

» Jenkins on if his teammates make fun of him for dropping two interceptions: “Yeah they always give me grief about that. There are two plays I probably could have made.”

» Burton on how his brother, freshman tight end Clay Burton played during his first game time: “I was happy for him. He had a good time and my whole family was happy for him. He did pretty good. I didn’t really watch too much of what he did, but from what I saw on the sideline, he did pretty good. He was real psyched to play.”

» Burton on his conversation with Weis about his position before the season: “I just told him I wanted to play whatever he saw me playing. It’s his offense and he does what he wants to do.”

» Burton on if he’s noticed the crowd has not been at capacity: “I heard UAB brought back 5,000 tickets or 4,000 tickets, something like that. That might have had something to do with it, but I expect it to be a pretty good crowd on Saturday. The Swamp’s The Swamp.”

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