Tennessee’s struggles covering kickoffs have been well documented.
This weekend the Vols will have some company.
The No. 1 team in the nation doesn’t have many weaknesses, but if there is a hole in Alabama’s game, it might be one it shares with UT heading into Saturday’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.). And the Vols have been waiting to finally be the team taking advantage of a gap instead of the other way around.
“We’ve seen the holes, man,” return man David Oku said. “It’s time to take one to the crib now. It’s time to take one to the crib.”
The Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) has already let two guys in there this season, one of just three teams in the country along with UT to give up multiple touchdowns on kickoff returns this season.
Those blown assignments have been particularly painful for the Vols (3-3, 1-2), given both their offensive struggles and the inability to balance the equation on special teams with its own return game.
“It’s frustrating, but that’s what you go and game plan each week for,” Oku said. “It’s real frustrating, but you’ve just got to go and deal with it. Coach (Eddie) Gran is a really good special teams coach, so I think we’re getting there.
“He said it’s about being patient, too. I think we’ll get it down. We’ve identified (the problem) and we’re working real hard on it this week. Coach Gran put it that if you don’t feel like playing special teams then get off. He’ll find somebody else to put in there.”
Gran has already plugged in a few different options on kickoffs, although the Vols are still searching for the right spark.
Oku has had the most opportunities, Nu’Keese Richardson has the longest return and Dennis Rogan has the best average in limited chances, but nothing has really clicked. That’s been a problem on more units than one on special teams, but with so few ways to attack Alabama, it’s clearly an area the Vols have focused on.
And lately the Crimson Tide has as well.
“They gave up two kickoff returns in the first two games of the year,” UT coach Lane Kiffin said. “Since then they’ve been much better.
“When you give up a couple touchdowns, it’s hard to get your stats back up. So, they’ve not been as poor lately as they were early.”
The Vols haven’t recovered nearly as quickly from their first-half woes in the return game, but it might just be a matter of time and experience.
UT has generally trusted the responsibility of handling the football to a pair of freshmen in Oku and Richardson, and its expecting much more from them as they grow into the role.
“At times it has (been frustrating), but we know if we just keep working hard and just keep listening to Coach Gran and to the scheme, we can get better,” Richardson said. “We can make it happen. Definitely, we see some good chances. Whoever is back there just break it, get a big run and give our offense something to work with.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the end zone back there.”
The Alabama defense doesn’t make it easy to get there. But the Vols know from first-hand experience there’s another way to score.
Take Two: The Vols are getting a second crack at the top-ranked team in the country, and they had an extra “Thursday” practice to get ready for it.
UT didn’t exactly get all that it hoped for though.
“Second Thursday practice I thought was just OK today,” Kiffin said. “We had a few mistakes, had to go back and repeat a few things, but we still have some time to clean things up. Tomorrow will still be big.
“(Thursday) just was normal. Mistake here, a mistake there, our intensity wasn’t the same as it has been for the last few days and maybe that comes from back-to-back Thursdays feeling good about where they were at. We have a lot of stuff to clean up.”
They won’t be doing it at Bryant-Denny Stadium though, since the Vols aren’t going there for a walkthrough today.
Bumps and Bruises: Quintin Hancock was again held out of practice, but the Vols aren’t ruling him out for Saturday yet.
The senior wide receiver was still wearing a walking boot to protect his sprained ankle Thursday, but he will be reevaluated this morning. Both offensive guard Vladimir Richard and cornerback Art Evans should be available against Alabama though.
“We expect both of those guys to go,” Kiffin said. “Art moved around and practiced basically everything today. Vlad did everything today. We anticipate both of them being able to play.”
Gerald Williams also returned to practice and is expected to play.
Sizable Test: Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney downplayed the difficulty of facing a 3-4 scheme up front. But stopping the players running it for Alabama is a different story.
“Physical defense, probably the most physical defense we’ve had to face since we’ve been here,” he said. “It’ll be quite a task for us up front trying to battle those guys there. They’re large, they have mass, they have speed, they’re a very talented group, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”