Florida on Tennessee’s mind in home opener

Photo Credit: UT Sports

Tennessee has been focused on Florida.

Not just as its upcoming opponent, but the entire state that’s under siege by Hurricane Irma.

The Vols have 13 players on their roster from Florida and several coaches with ties to the area in the eye of the storm.

For them, Tennessee’s home opener on Saturday at Neyland Stadium offered a chance to get their minds off the weather for a few hours and for some of their families to seek safer shelter in Knoxville.

Floridians Carlin Fils-aime and Brandon Johnson combined for three first-half touchdowns to help No. 25 Tennessee beat Indiana State 42–7 in a final tune-up before facing the rival Gators to open SEC play.

“It felt great. Whenever I’m on the field, all my worries just go away,” said Fils-aime, who rushed three times for 41 yards and two touchdowns. “We talk about now and living in the moment, and that’s one thing Coach Jones emphasized this week was living in the moment now and not thinking about stuff that’s in the past or stuff that doesn’t relate to playing football.”

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said the Vols have taken measures to help the families of their Florida players. Many traveled to Saturday’s game and plan to stay in Knoxville until the worst of the storm passes.

As of Saturday night, Jones said he hadn’t spoken to Florida officials about whether Tennessee’s upcoming game against the Gators in Gainesville would be impacted by the storm. Florida’s game against Northern Colorado on Saturday was canceled.

Jones was impressed by the mental focus of his players with friends and relatives affected by Irma’s path.

“That says a lot about these young guys. You watch the news and you see that the hurricane is coming,” Jones said. “It’s all about family. I love them all and really appreciate all of them. I can only imagine what they are going through. That is why we’re going to assist them in every way we possibly can.”

True freshman Ty Chandler got the Vols (2–0) off to a fast start against Indiana State (0–2) by returning the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown.

Fils Aime scored on runs of 4 and 30 yards, and Johnson caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Quinten Dormady to give the Vols a 28–0 lead at halftime.

Johnson, who is from the Fort Lauderdale area, said his immediate family was at the game, and tentatively planned to stay in Knoxville until early next week when it was safe to return.

Johnson offered his “thoughts and prayers” to his home state, and was eager to go spend time with his parents after Tennessee’s victory.

“The worry is always about my loved ones back home — family, friends besides my immediate family,” Johnson said. “That is always there. But it is nice to be able to focus on football.”

Tennessee offensive lineman Jack Jones has been tracking the devastation the hurricanes have caused this season.

His father, John, owns John Jones Real Estate LLC in Mufreesboro. The company teamed with River Oaks Community Church to collect donated goods and deliver them to the Houston area in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Jack Jones was with Tennessee linebacker Dillon Bates, a Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. native, on Friday night discussing Irma’s potential impact on Bates’ family and friends.

“He was talking about it, and I think a lot of people from there are aware of what is going on and some of their families are up here in Knoxville right now,” Jones said. “Just prayers going out to everyone in Florida and also to the people in Houston. Can’t thank enough the men and the women down there helping those people out.”

Although sports in no way compares to the gravity of a storm, Johnson was happy to provide a milestone moment of joy for his family and friends in trying times by scoring his first collegiate touchdown against Indiana State.

“It felt amazing. I give all the glory to God honestly,” the sophomore said. “I’ve been working for a long time, and for something like this to happen is a dream come true.”