September 16, 2008

Tackling Tebow Vols' top task

Steve Caldwell almost sounded like he was talking about wrestling a grizzly bear or hooking a great white shark.

Which is understandable, since Tennessee's veteran defensive ends coach had been asked to discuss Florida quarterback Tim Tebow -- college football's Paul Bunyan.

"We would love to hit him as many times as we can," said Caldwell, "but first we have to catch the big sucker."

The unranked Vols (1-1), who host Tebow's fourth-ranked Gators (2-0) Saturday inside Neyland Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), have done little of either in two previous encounters with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Trying to a nurse a 10-point lead two years ago at home with 17 minutes to play, Tennessee repeatedly failed to corral Tebow. Then a true freshman, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Tebow picked up four first downs and 29 yards on seven carries as the Gators rallied for a 21-20 victory en route to both the SEC and Bowl Championship Series titles.

"He's a big strong athlete that's hard to tackle," Vols defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks said. "Tim's so big and strong and he's truly a great player. …

"He's an inside run guy. He runs the power play up inside. He runs the zone play up inside. Tebow does a lot of things."

Said UT defensive coordinator John Chavis, "He's got the ability to run over you. It's kind of interesting in the (Capital One Bowl game) against Michigan and they really had some fine linebackers, big guys who were really physical. I saw him go one-on-one and watched him and them melt at the goal line. He's a tough, physical guy. A fine competitor."

At the Swamp last year as the Vols melted in the Florida heat, Tebow launched his record-setting, Heisman Trophy season with two rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns. The son of missionaries and a veteran of three consecutive humanitarian trips to the Philippines, Tebow amassed 360 yards of total offense as Florida roared to a 59-20 victory.

"Tim Tebow is a returning Heisman winner, and that's no accident," said UT coach Phillip Fulmer, who's 5-11 against Florida and 0-3 against Urban Meyer. "He makes them go. He does a fantastic job of running the offense, but he's most dangerous when things break down and he's out there making a play running the ball or throwing the ball. He's tough."

Tennessee players are well aware of Tebow's ironman image, but they similarly recognize that Florida's junior quarterback likewise had some residual effects by season's end last year from his team-best 895 rushing yards on 210 attempts.

"He's a special cat. He is a really tough guy. I saw something on TV talking about how many times he got hit compared to another quarterback," junior linebacker Rico McCoy said. "He is a physical guy. You are supposed to hit the quarterback and keep hitting him and hitting him. You are supposed to try and take his will away. That's the best way to go about trying to stop a mobile quarterback. You gotta hit 'em, and hit 'em."

But the Vols also know the Florida offense hardly relies solely on Tebow, who clearly serves as the catalyst. It's Tebow's supporting cast -- Percy Harvin, Will Demps and Chris Rainey among others -- who make the star signal caller shine brighter.

"We all know Tim Tebow can make plays with arms and his legs," Vols defensive end Wes Brown said. "He's a big guy, he can run, he can throw. He's got a good offensive line and players around him that make him really shine as well. He could play anywhere and be good, but with the guys around him, it makes him really good."

Perhaps more important that hitting Tebow simply is keeping him off the field. While the Gators were extending their 28-20 lead last year with 31 unanswered points, Tebow directed the Florida offense to 163 yards of total offense and an hour-glass owning 14 minutes, 33 seconds of possession in the third quarter in Gainesville.

"Our defense was on the field the entire third quarter and got gassed," Fulmer said. "And at that point in the year, our defense was not really very good, honestly. We're more mature right now in our defensive front than we were at that point. We haven't had any guys missing practice and trying to play. We're much better in the secondary. I hope the results of all that make us better."

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