KNOXVILLE -- Ja'Wuan James couldn't help himself.
The Tennessee football team is refusing to let youth be an excuse this season, but after the win against Cincinnati, the Volunteers' starting right tackle noticed the number of sophomores filling important roles, from the eight starters on offense to Jacques Smith and Brent Brewer on defense and Michael Palardy, Dontavis Sapp and Raiques Crump on special teams.
"I looked around at all the guys that came here together," James said. "Now we're playing together and working to get better. We haven't talked about it, but it's in our heads that we're on the edge of having something really special."
It's looked pretty special through smooth-sailing victories against Montana and Cincinnati. The Vols haven't faced much adversity this season, but that likely will change Saturday when they visit 16th-ranked Florida, where the environment and opponent could create plenty of difficulty.
But if there's one thing that's different about these Vols as they head into the vaunted Swamp, it's their confidence level. The Gators have won the last six games in the series, and since they rolled by a combined 89-26 in 2007 and '08, UT seemingly has entered the September showdown as a decided underdog merely hoping for a win.
Now the Vols are confident in general. Second-year coach Derek Dooley refused to use the popular term "swagger" in describing that confidence level and chose to say his young players simply have a "good way" about them. He explained it more after Wednesday's practice.
"Everybody has a different makeup: We call it competitive makeup, your competitive character," he said. "Some guys have a real confidence about them and they're ready to play and they want to make plays, and if they make mistakes, they don't get down. Other guys, it bothers them a little bit more when they make a mistake and it's harder for them to recover and they need a little more time.
"It just so happens that a lot of our young guys, I think, have just a good competitive makeup about them that they enjoy being in the spotlight. They're not afraid of it -- they're not afraid to make a mistake in the spotlight and maybe get called out because they'll go back out there and do it again. I think that's a quality you want in every football player."
The Vols certainly will need that confidence Saturday. Though UT has encountered more trouble than a young Florida team that led at halftime by a combined 49-3 in its first two games, it's still been a smooth start to the season for the Vols.
Senior Art Evans returned an interception for a touchdown to take back the momentum Montana gained with a safety. Cincinnati hit a big play on last Saturday's third snap and scored on its first two possessions, but UT held the Bearcats to nine points the rest of the game. Offensively it has seemed easy for the sophomore trio of quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter.
James admitted he's curious how the Vols would handle tougher times.
"I definitely don't want to see it or wish it or whatever," he said, "but if it happened, I'd love to see and be a part of bringing everybody back and bringing everybody together and make sure we head in the right direction and forget about those bad plays."
Tailback Tauren Poole and left tackle Dallas Thomas are the only two offensive starters who have played at Florida's intimidating Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Marsalis Teague, Prentiss Waggner and Austin Johnson are the lone defensive starters who have played there, though a few more reserves have seen the stadium.
"It's going to come at us very fast, faster than we think it will," said Poole, a senior. "I just think I've got to keep everybody positive. Bad things are going to happen in a game; we just have to limit the amount of bad things that actually happen. With me, I've got to be the leader that I have to be for this football team that Coach Dooley expects me to be when things go wrong."
Dooley's concerns of how his team will answer bad stretches or close games remain. Like everyone else, the coach wants to see what his team can do on the road against a Southeastern Conference rival.
"You obviously want to go in confident, but the trick's going to be when they do something to shake your confidence," he said. "How are you going to handle it? That's what we're going to find out."
The players feel the same way. Many of them were doing the Gator chomp with their arms while Florida's band music blared over the speakers throughout the indoor practice field during Thursday morning's practice. The game is a challenge they're embracing this week.
"No doubt," James said, "this is our commercial right here. This is our chance to show the world what we're about as a team."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...