Special attention needed

Vols facing slew of tough questions on both sides of the boot

  • Position Coach: Staff
  • Starters: K/P/KO: Britton Colquitt (Jr.); H: Casey Woods (Sr.); DS: Morgan Cox (So.); PR: Jonathan Hefney (Sr.); KR: Arian Foster (Jr.) LaMarcus Coker (So.)
  • Keep an eye on: Daniel Lincoln (Fr.)
  • Depth Chart: Jonathan Crompton (So.) Nick Stephens (Fr.)
  • Key Stat: The Vols averaged just 16.1 yards per kickoff return last season, which ranked 117th in Division I-A and last in the SEC
Tennessee special teams player Antonio Wardlow, right, blocks a punt by Georgia’s Gordon Ely-Delso last season that Wardlow recovered for a touchdown in UT’s 38-27 victory in Athens, Ga.

Photo by Michael Patrick

Tennessee special teams player Antonio Wardlow, right, blocks a punt by Georgia’s Gordon Ely-Delso last season that Wardlow recovered for a touchdown in UT’s 38-27 victory in Athens, Ga.

If there’s one rule change that’s intriguing for the Tennessee football team, it’s moving kickoffs back 5 yards.

Sure the NCAA’s latest attempt at speeding up the game might help the Vols boost a kick return game that was third-worst in the nation and dead-last in the SEC at 16.1 yards a game.

But there’s also a sticky matter of covering opponents’ returns.

And then there’s the extra wear on junior Britton Colquitt’s right leg.

With the departure of kicker James Wilhoit and the slow development of redshirt freshman Daniel Lincoln, Colquitt enters fall camp as Tennessee’s place kicker, punter and kickoff specialist.

If it seems like a long time since the Vols have asked a player to do both, it has been.

According to UT’s media guide, the Vols haven’t used one player to placekick and punt for the majority of a season since the two-platoon days of the early 1960s.

Still, that’s the situation facing the Vols when camp begins the first week of August.

“Right now as we go in, he (Colquitt) would still be the guy that kicks,” UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. “As we progress, we may end up with Britton kicking longer field goals and Daniel kicking shorter ones. I just don’t know how that will play out.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Lincoln progressed this spring, in part because a nagging quadriceps injury is healed up.

Fulmer likes Lincoln’s attitude, even if he’s not entirely comfortable with his leg.

“Britton kicked that 51-yarder in the spring game, and Daniel was mad as heck on the sideline with me for not letting him try it,” Fulmer said. “I like Daniel’s competitive spirit. He’s made a lot of progress.”

A likely scenario — assuming Lincoln continues to improve — would be for Colquitt to handle longer field goal tries while Lincoln handles extra points and shorter field goal attempts.

That would likely leave Colquitt still handling kickoffs in addition to the punting duties at which he finished seventh in the country with a 44.9-yard average.

Backup punter Chad Cunningham showed a strong leg this spring, but still lacks Colquitt’s hang time.

Wide receiver Casey Woods is a sure-handed holder, and Morgan Cox will take over the snapping duties with the graduation of Ryan West.

But it’s the return game that poses the biggest questions.

Fourteen Vols returned at least one kick last season, but averaged just 16.1 yards per return with a long of 40 yards by LaMarcus Coker.

Coker, however, missed two games after getting injured on a kick return against Alabama.

The Vols’ recruiting class is filled with athletes. One of their incoming signees could see action returning kicks with fewer touchbacks as a result of the rule change.

Tennessee’s opponents fared better on kick returns, averaging 18.8 yards per return — good enough for about 85th in the country — with one touchdown.

Punt returns were significantly better, thanks to Jonathan Hefney, who averaged 12.1 yards per return on 17 tries with a 65-yarder against South Carolina.

The senior safety hopes to be that much better this season.

“I want to score touchdowns on punt returns,” Hefney said. “I’ve been watching (Chicago Bears return specialist) Devin Hester since the Super Bowl. I’m trying to do what he’s doing.

“He’s got vision, he can run. He’s setting up his cuts when he catches the ball. I’m trying to set up it like that so it helps me during the season.”

The kicking game could certainly help the Vols this season.

Colquitt can flip the field as a punter, and he’ll be solid as a place kicker as long as he’s required.

But the returns?

That’s a question that will be answered this fall.

“Return game’s going to be huge,” Fulmer said. “Kickoff return, kickoff coverage is going to become an even bigger factor in the game.”

Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.

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Comments » 7

GreerVol22 writes:

I'm not as worried about Colquitt's leg as I am about covering kick off and punt returns. Look back at last year in the big games, like Florida, LSU, BAMA, USC. Average starting field position was the 36 yard line if my souce is correct. We cannot continue to give these good teams the advantage. Heck, Georgia would only have had 14 points had it not been for poor kick coverage. Its time Fulmer quits using these special teams as a way to get bench warmmers some playing time and put the experienced quality athletes on the field.

IntheBlimpalot writes:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

volinc writes:

Drew: last year's Ga game score was 51-33, not
38-27.

wyomingvol writes:

Just catch the ball Stewart......

shoalcreekvol writes:

I've got the SI cover in my office here from that Georgia game / blocked punt. Nice keepsake. I agree with the others who said that covering kicks is a much bigger concern than making them. We've always developed good kickers, but the last few years every time we kickoff or (especially) punt I close my eyes...

hueypilot writes:

I think the Vinson kid broke all the school records at Hargrave for kick returning. While I like Jonathan Hefney's attitude, I think kick runners are naturally gifted, not developed. Sure they can all benefit from coaching but I think most great kick runners just have those great instincts and quick feet. JMO

charlesfol#284066 writes:

no sec title since 1998, how long are we going to put up with fulmer?

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