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Tennessee players and coaches vow to continue to improve

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Joe Milton lost weight in the offseason to improve his speed. He watched film of Cam Newton to improve his running skills.

That was evident on the first play of the game against the University of Texas at San Antonio when Milton kept the ball on a zone read and sprinted 81 yards to score on the longest run ever by a UT quarterback.

“I did (feel faster),’’ Milton said after the Vols ran over the Roadrunners 45-14 Saturday at Neyland Stadium. “A tire blew out at about the 20 (yard line) but sometimes you arrive on a flat tire.’’

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Not much else was flat about Tennessee’s performance. An offense that struggled to run against Florida pounded UTSA for 303 yards on 33 carries. A defense that couldn’t tackle the Gators held UTSA scoreless in three quarters, intercepted two passes and recorded four sacks.

It was a nice bounce-back after a disappointing performance last week in the Swamp.

“You don’t want to have to learn that way,’’ UT coach Josh Heupel said about the loss at Florida. “But we had a really good week of practice.’’

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Tennessee jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead thanks to Milton’s long run and a 10-yard score by Dylan Sampson to cap a 68-yard drive.

A fast start “has been the motto since the season started,’’ Milton said. “It’s been the motto since Coach Heupel got here.’’

Tennessee carried that fast start to a 31-0 lead at halftime.

UTSA scored 14 straight points in the third period to cut the gap to 17 before the Vols rallied for two fourth quarter scores to put the game away.

“Winning is hard, no matter who you play,’’ said defensive tackle Omari Thomas. “At the end of the day, you can’t be satisfied. You can’t be complacent. You’ve got to keep working.’’

Tennessee’s offense experienced a lull after Milton was hit hard and limped off the field. He misfired on eight of his next nine pass attempts.

“There is still a level of efficiency we can get to in the passing game,’’ Heupel said.

Milton echoed those thoughts: “I feel like there’s still more to do.’’

How do you avoid the droughts?

“It starts with not being complacent,’’ said Milton, who was 18 of 31 passing for 209 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 89 yards and another score. “You’ve got to keep your foot on their throat.’’

Thomas said a focus against UTSA was to stop the run, after Florida rushed for 183 yards and Trevoe Etienne averaged 7.5 yards on 23 carries.

“We pride ourselves as a defense – you don’t run the ball on us,’’ Thomas said. “We wanted to play with an edge and when we play with an edge, you don’t mess with us.’’

While the Roadrunners were held to 88 yards on 40 carries, Sampson emerged from the Witness Protection Program to put on a show. He ripped off runs of 44, 41 and 29 yards and was solely responsible for a 70-yard drive in two plays on his way to a career-high 139 yards. He had a 20-yard reception, giving him 159 yards from scrimmage on 12 touches – or 13.3 yards per touch.

Sampson, who scored four touchdowns against Virginia, had four touches against Austin Peay and inexplicably didn’t play at Florida.

Sampson said he wasn’t “frustrated’’ by not playing at Florida, adding that it “wasn’t personal’’ and he didn’t feel “disrespected.’’ But he ran with a vengeance against UTSA.

“I have a will to compete,’’ Sampson said. “There’s a difference in hard work and competing. I want to be a playmaker. I don’t want to be tackled by the first person or the second person.’’

Against UTSA, he was hardly tackled at all.

And he helped spearhead a bounce back win after a gut-wrenching lost at Florida.

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