- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

For No.4 Tennessee, the secondary provides the primary dose of pre-Florida confidence.
The 10th-ranked Gators (2-1) are coming to Knoxville today to resume one of college football's most bitter rivalries, but Tennessee strong safety Julian Battle is worrying about pepperoni or sausage.
Florida features the quarterback-receiver tandem of Heisman Trophy candidate Rex Grossman and Biletnikoff hopeful Taylor Jacobs, but Vols' junior free safety Rashad Baker is speculating on his interception totals three, or just two?
And Tennessee junior Jabari Greer, who described the dorm-room scene earlier this week, is wondering how many times he'll be unleashed on corner blitzes.
Frankly, Florida week trepidation has been at an all-time low among Tennessee's defensive backs.
"We're just that good simple as that," said UT cornerback Willie Miles, a fifth-year senior with few self-esteem issues who missed last season with an injury but has returned to his starting slot. "I think the ultimate weapon for a player is to know how good you are not think, not hope, but know. Because then you play with no fear, no doubt. We have that swagger, and we can't wait to get on that field against Florida and show what we can do."
They'll get their chance in front of more than 108,000 fans at Neyland Stadium this afternoon. And without longtime Tennessee tormentor Steve Spurrier on the Gators' sideline, most experts are predicting a pretty compelling show.
"That group of DBs at Tennessee is about as good as you'll find," said ESPN analyst Lee Corso last Saturday. "Rex Grossman would have his hands full with Steve Spurrier, because that secondary in Knoxville can really go. They can stick on you, and they can stick you. They fly around. Did you see that shot Baker put on that kid from Wyoming? Whoa!"
"That shot" was a savage second-quarter knockout hit Baker delivered on Wyoming receiver Brock Ralph during Tennessee's season opener. The hit was clearly helmet-to-helmet, and the Vols were penalized 15 yards for the foul. But the message was clearly delivered nonetheless: catch a pass in the Tennessee secondary, and you better be prepared to pay.
"I didn't want to hurt him, but I did want to splatter him, if that makes any sense," said Baker, a converted blue-chip wide receiver who improves his draft status every time he steps on the field. "They can call it helmet-to-helmet or whatever, but I'd do it again. You have to set that tone."
The tone was set. Ralph didn't catch another pass all day, though he did get a nice reception from the folks at the UT Medical Center. The Cowboys completed just five more passes as a team. And Tennessee destroyed supposedly pass-happy Wyoming, 47-7, recording three interceptions while allowing just 11 completions for 144 yards.
That performance, and the 26-3 yawner of an encore against Middle Tennessee State, which scored 34 points against Alabama a week earlier, gives Tennessee the second-leading total defense (198 yards) and the top scoring defense (five points) in the land heading into today's duel. That's a surprise considering Tennessee lost all four of last season's starting defensive linemen to the NFL.
"Our defensive line certainly isn't what it was last season, but I think our back seven are far better," said Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis. "We're using our 'backers a little more for quarterback pressure, and we feel confident doing that because that secondary group is just spectacular."
Of course, Wyoming and Middle Tennessee are hardly SEC-caliber teams, leaving Grossman feeling fairly confident about Florida's ability to move the ball.
"Their DBs are pretty good, but we threw for like 375 yards [371] on them last year," said Grossman. "I don't know why this year should be any different."
But this year is clearly different. Spurrier is gone, leaving new offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher to tackle Tennessee's defense for the first time. Gone are Florida's two top receivers from last season, Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, who combined to catch 15 balls for 216 yards against the Vols. And the Tennessee secondary, which last season was talented but somewhat green, now seems to have just the right amount of seasoning and sass.
Battle, a ferocious hitter and coveted JUCO transfer who was just learning the system last season, is now accustomed to the speed of the college game. Greer, already the top cover corner in the SEC, is now a year older. Baker, the best athlete on the team, now feels like a safety. And Miles, the only holdover from Tennessee's national title team of 1998, is back directing traffic and talking trash opposite Greer.
"He talks the most, but we all know who gets locked on the other team's No.1 guy," said Greer. "Like this week, I get Jacobs, and he gets some other guy. And that's really what Florida's receiving corps is this season Jacobs and some other guys. Now, maybe by the end of the season, you'll know the names of those other guys. But they aren't making a name for themselves on Saturday, not against us at our house. This is our time."


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