Inside the position
- 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
Position-by-position look at Tennessee 2007
Drew's Notebook blog
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.