Special delivery: Russell finds winning edges in kicking game

Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, left, and tight ends and special teams coach Eric Russell positions players during practice on Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010 at Haslam Field.

Photo by Saul Young

Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, left, and tight ends and special teams coach Eric Russell positions players during practice on Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010 at Haslam Field.

Eric Russell, black shirt, is a self-taught special-teams coach who plans to help Tennessee duplicate the kicking-game success his units displayed at North Texas, Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech the past eight seasons.

Eric Russell earned a promotion and a choice.

The promising assistant at North Texas had proven himself worthy of a larger role under coach Darrell Dickey, but what exactly it would be was up to Russell.

The Mean Green were ready to add coordinators for special teams and recruiting, and the option belonged to their young defensive assistant.

"I thought the one way to make a difference would be on the grass, which is why I went with special teams," Russell said. "Now, it's not the most fun job in America because it's gut-wrenching, but thank God I made the choice I did."

There's little doubt Russell made the right one. Eight years later the self-taught guru has some impressive special teams statistics on his resume.

And even with all the pressure that comes from leading the often overlooked third phase, it's mostly opponents that have had their guts wrenched by Russell's units since he made that important decision in 2002.

At North Texas he oversaw a group that blocked 14 punts, including an eye-popping seven in one season.

At Louisiana Tech during his first tour of duty with new Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, the Bulldogs were the top-ranked team in the nation in four different special teams categories and scored five times in that phase in 2008.

And in one season with Texas Tech, Russell helped the Red Raiders become one of the best teams in the country at picking up yardage on kickoff returns and preventing it in coverage - which certainly would be appealing to Tennessee considering its struggles to do either last season.

"You look at what went on here last year, and let's say on the return team they got the ball outside the 35, offensively they're going to score," Russell said. "Inside the 20? There wasn't much success. Same thing defensively.

"It's about getting our guys to understand how all three phases play together, getting the guys to buy in and develop that pride and how, even to the average fan, there are lots of things on teams that to the naked eye don't stand out."

Russell's impact on special teams is plain to see for anybody, though pinning down an exact reason for his success isn't nearly as simple.

The Vols have roundly praised their new coordinator for the simplicity of his schemes, so he hasn't been doing it with smoke and mirrors. He didn't have the best talent in the country at North Texas or Louisiana Tech, so it wasn't just pure force either.

For his part, Russell seems to shoot down any idea that there's a secret formula. But considering that the flat-screen mounted to the wall in his office was cued up to a UT Martin game during an afternoon meeting last week, he might have tipped his hand when it comes to the traits UT prizes more than most - preparedness and organization.

"There was a lot of trial and error for me early," Russell said. "Getting together with Derek was huge because he had a background with teams and had been successful, and Derek's set on the ways he wants some things taught and the amount of detail he expects.

"The huge thing with getting with coach Dooley was the value of having a kind of organized menu on how you put things in and letting them all tie together. It was good for me the way we teach things.

"But you've also got to find the right guys. I think the scheme is important, but it's the guys you've got that execute it. It's about the time you spend coaching, the details and all those things. If you lose the edge on teams, there's a good chance you're not coming out on top. It can be the difference-maker."

Which is exactly what drew Russell to special teams in the first place.

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Comments » 63

ThurmondEppy writes:

It would be really great to finally have consistent and effective special teams.

mike2ray#532619 writes:

Finally! I'm really looking forward to seeing progress in this area. It's just looked like a Chinese fire drill as of late. It sounds like we've finally got a guy who has a proven track record and get us back to where we need to be.

gohawks1 writes:

It's past time the special teams looked... well, special.

rockytopatl writes:

Virginia Tech is one of several teams that makes special teams a priority, and it wins them a game or two every year. There's no reason that can't happen at Tennessee.

Bloodrunzorange writes:

I remember how dumb our coach looked last year on the "ask the coach" show. Every time he was asked about the kicking game he just laughed and asked us for answers. This guy has a chance to make an immediate impact! GBO!!

Psychovol writes:

Finally a coach that may keep George Cafego and General Neyland from turning in their graves. I'm so tired of cringing when the maxims are read and holding my breath when the special teams take the field. This team could compliment the defense and kick start an offense that is young and green. A short field could be a real confidence builder.

OrangePsyched writes:

Add our new kicker and punter and hopefully this will be a weapon for us this year. In the past recently we lost all the special teams battles. You can't give the other team field position time and again and expect to win.

gtownvol writes:

Johnny Majors was the last UT coach to really emphasize how important the kicking game is to the game. Last year we looked like a playground team running down the field on kickoffs. Hopefully we will see improvement with a coach devoted specifically to that aspect of the game. Thanks, Coach Dooley, for the renewed emphasis. GBO!!

txsvol#372416 writes:

Guess that we Vol fans are not 'average,' because it has been obvious to us, even when we watch TV, that our recent 'special teams,' under both Fulmer and he who shall not be named, have been anything but special for quite some time. Go Vols! SAVol

jsm67vol writes:

Renewed emphasis on ST could definitely add a win or two. How sweet it would be to see a punt return or many this year! GBO!

always_vol (Inactive) writes:

I think some of CDD's recruiting is aimed directly at special teams guys...not just kickers, but guys who will play hard and are intelligent.

I very much expect UT to be a Virginia Tech style of team on defense and special teams.

Offense?? Pro-style, i'd think. Too hard to run consistently in the SEC, though the winners typically can run at least SOME of the time.

Fulton_Vol writes:

CD2 has made decisions in regards to coaches, players and playbook that will help the kicking game improve. Confidence is huge in the kicking game and I don't think our players have had much of it the last several years. UT used to be a kicker's school and we have put several in the pros but of late the focus wasn't there and I am hopeful that year will proved we are greatly improved in this area.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

I never understood why Fulmer would squib a kick off with the lead and 2 minutes left in the game..That kind of bad coaching use to drive me insane!!! Best defense on a kick off is a touch back. Simple strategy and our incoming kicker is known for that..Any improvement on kick returns would be great. Oku is to slow to be a threat on KO returns..I can't even remember the last time we ran a KO for a TD..Maybe somebody could refresh my memory on that one!

pdhuff#552644 writes:

To call our "kicking" tribulations a "struggle" was the kindest thing I've seen in a while.

It is amazing how far that facet of the Vol game has sunk.

hueypilot writes:

I do think coaching is a major component of special teams. As great as Eric Berry was, he took a very poor lane on a kickoff last year that led to (can't remember) either a long return or a TD. Kickoff returns are game/momentum changers. Punting likewise.
Go Vols Get this important third phase of the game back where it need to be.

537081 writes:

I can't count the times I've cursted the kickoff teams. I sure hope we can do better. Now less work on 3rd and long.

orangecountyvols writes:

Every one of your above comments were excellent and very accurate.

The kicking game and special teams are so important.
Hopefully they will help make a difference this year.

OldNumber7 writes:

Press the Kicking Game. Here is where the breaks are made. - Maxim 6. This is where Neyland defines a key origin of the breaks..where they are derived. He then coached.. Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way - SCORE (Maxim 2). If at first the game - or the breaks - go against you, don't let up... put on more steam (Maxim 3). Protect our kickers, our QB, our lead and our ball game (Maxim 4). Look at how much Neyland refers to the kicking game...the games' biggest opportunities. Dooley's focus on the kicking game would make the General proud.

AtLeastMyTeamHasPerfectSeasons writes:

What? Some will say in here because he didnt come from the "saban tree" or the "meyer tree" that he isnt the best. Look at his accomplishments. Were are in good hands.

Eric Russell + Matt Darr + Michael Palardy = success!

OrangePride writes:

I think I have been yakking about getting a real special teams person in here since about 2007! How many games have we lost on special teams play over the last 3 years? punt returns? kickoff returns? blocked field goals? No sense counting, it's too many. I am looking forward to seeing what happens now. I'm cautious in my optimism, but this is surely a step in the right direction. GO VOLS!

nocleats writes:

I wanna go down on the kickoff team, and pop a snot bubble on someone!

Mtnbiker writes:

in response to OldNumber7:

Press the Kicking Game. Here is where the breaks are made. - Maxim 6. This is where Neyland defines a key origin of the breaks..where they are derived. He then coached.. Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way - SCORE (Maxim 2). If at first the game - or the breaks - go against you, don't let up... put on more steam (Maxim 3). Protect our kickers, our QB, our lead and our ball game (Maxim 4). Look at how much Neyland refers to the kicking game...the games' biggest opportunities. Dooley's focus on the kicking game would make the General proud.

Maybe I'm just emotional this morning, but that one fired me up.

DenverVol writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

I never understood why Fulmer would squib a kick off with the lead and 2 minutes left in the game..That kind of bad coaching use to drive me insane!!! Best defense on a kick off is a touch back. Simple strategy and our incoming kicker is known for that..Any improvement on kick returns would be great. Oku is to slow to be a threat on KO returns..I can't even remember the last time we ran a KO for a TD..Maybe somebody could refresh my memory on that one!

I totally agree with the squib kick comment. Used to kill me as well. Not sure about Oku being too slow though. If I'm not mistaken the kid was 25th in the nation on kick returns last year and that was for a ST unit that was poor at best. Looking forward to seeing what we put on the field this year. Go VOLS!

DenverVol writes:

in response to jsm67vol:

Renewed emphasis on ST could definitely add a win or two. How sweet it would be to see a punt return or many this year! GBO!

Add to that...how sweet would it be to block a few punts to set up a short field for our young offense? Talkin' about a confidence builder. Go VOLS!

Lostvolinhighweeds writes:

There are 3 phases to the game. Offense,defense and special teams.
Generally, the team that wins 2 of the 3 will win the game.
It sure is hard to win on both offense AND defense every game. Hopefully, CER will have us in a better position on ST. I'm certainly looking forward to it.

Lostvolinhighweeds writes:

in response to FreeTDTN:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I disagree. There is every reason for optimism. If only because it's not likely to be worse than what we've seen the last 8-10 years.

Lostvolinhighweeds writes:

in response to FreeTDTN:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Not to mention all the kick-off and punt returns by Florida that have put us in the hole right off the bat.

10volunteers98 writes:

in response to OrangePride:

I think I have been yakking about getting a real special teams person in here since about 2007! How many games have we lost on special teams play over the last 3 years? punt returns? kickoff returns? blocked field goals? No sense counting, it's too many. I am looking forward to seeing what happens now. I'm cautious in my optimism, but this is surely a step in the right direction. GO VOLS!

I agree.I like this new coaching staff.All of them.I believe this new staff has the energy it will take to make Tennessee a winner once again.I can`t wait to see Michael Palardy and Matt Darr in action.David Oku might just improve on his kick returns under this new staff,also.I`m also anxious to watch the defense play under Justin Wilcox and Chuck Smith.Maybe we`ll forget all about Papa Kiffin and son.GO,VOLS!!!

pomp_and_circumstance writes:

Whith all the ST misery pouring out here, who will answer this question: who was the last UT player to field a kick off or a punt and return it for a TD? Year is required, naming the opponent is a bonus. I'm thinking Willie Gault myself.

10volunteers98 writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEAR:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Eddie Gran wasn`t around long enough for the team to learn anything from.He was just like the rest of the last sorry-azzed staff.

crimsonviper writes:

in response to BIVOLAR_BEAR:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Who does Gran coach for now Big?..I forgot.

10volunteers98 writes:

in response to crimsonviper:

Who does Gran coach for now Big?..I forgot.

Florida State.

easleychuck writes:

in response to crimsonviper:

Who does Gran coach for now Big?..I forgot.

FSU

elbtenn#502977 writes:

in response to Psychovol:

Finally a coach that may keep George Cafego and General Neyland from turning in their graves. I'm so tired of cringing when the maxims are read and holding my breath when the special teams take the field. This team could compliment the defense and kick start an offense that is young and green. A short field could be a real confidence builder.

Well said!!!

richvol writes:

Great special team play is not so much about kickoff returns or punt returns for touchdowns as it is about field position. Touchbacks on kickoffs,making your fieldgoals and reversing field position on punts is the key to winning almost any game. Tennessee was feared in the kicking game for many years yet Fulmer let it go to the dogs and he should have known better. He seemed to think if you had a kicker that could punt or placekick well then you were OK. It's about the blocking and tackling on kicks...it's always been about the blocking and tackling since football began and that's where we have been lacking.

The value of pinning an opponent inside the twenty on kickoffs cannot be underestimated since eighty yard drives are a very low percentage and pooch kicks are the stupidest plays ever conceived. The General emphasized field position more than offense and he was right. Your opponent is likely to make a mistake before he can score.

Punt returns and blocking can be such a weapon when done effectively. These are the plays that a game hinges on. How many time have I seen a game reversed on a punt return...I couldn't count them.

Jakevol writes:

Special teams have hurt the Vols in the most recent years. They let kick-offs come too far back. Neyland would never let this happen,, it was one of his strenghts. It's all about field postion and if you have a weak offense, you better have an outstanding special team.

HtownVol writes:

This is important to us VOL fans and we all know why.
UT vs Bama 2009.

That is the MAIN reason that UT fans are ashamed of our special teams.
Lets face it. 2 blocked FG's in a few minutes. If UT could have made one of those field goals, UT could have turned their season into a much better bowl game.

Lets hope that this staff and our prized Kicker and Punter (who will likely be a pretty good punt coverage tackler as well) are enough to turn the ST play around.

Also, people that keep sayng UT is lacking in talent are really over looking recruiting. Two straight top 10 classes and the 2 before were not great but still above average (as in top 35).

Yes the O-line is inexperienced but we do have talent (J. Stone ,J. James both top 5 O-Line recruits)
QB - Tyler was a top 6 ranked QB recruit.
WR - Loaded. Hunter,Rogers,Moore,Jones, Milton ...
RB - Oku, Poole, Williams, Neal
On and on
So, the issue is not talent, it is experience. My OPINION is that UT will be so much better off with Tyler starting the season at QB. He has a far stronger arm than Simms. And for being a freshman in the O-W game he appeared to make much better decisions also. Starting Tyler will also pay off next season as the Offense will have experience and the QB returning for 3 mor years. But this is CDDs decision and he wants to win more than any of us.

My question is WHAT IS BRYCE BROWN GOING TO DO?
..one more. Last year (Lil Kittens 1st recruiting class) we signed a WR James Green, anyone know what the deal is with him?

GO VOLS!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Psychovol:

Finally a coach that may keep George Cafego and General Neyland from turning in their graves. I'm so tired of cringing when the maxims are read and holding my breath when the special teams take the field. This team could compliment the defense and kick start an offense that is young and green. A short field could be a real confidence builder.

I have had the same thoughts for years! I thought it was SO ironic that ex-CPF put so much public emphasis on Neyland's game maxims, and yet UT football, almost ever since the time of all that reciting, got worse and worse in nearly every area addressed by those maxims, especially with regard to the kicking game. Since I am sure we will struggle on offense early until our inexperienced QBs and O-linemen find their way and possibly struggle on defense late as the injuries and general wear-and-tear mount on our thin defensive numbers, the special teams will never be so important as a source of possible winning edges as they will this season.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to hueypilot:

I do think coaching is a major component of special teams. As great as Eric Berry was, he took a very poor lane on a kickoff last year that led to (can't remember) either a long return or a TD. Kickoff returns are game/momentum changers. Punting likewise.
Go Vols Get this important third phase of the game back where it need to be.

I noticed what I think you are talking about several times last year. It seemed that on nearly every return some coverage guy would be down the field WAY ahead of the others, get juked by the returner, who would then run right up the seam left by the overly-aggressive down-field guy. I know Berry was guilty of that on a couple of occasions, but he was far from the only one. Hopefully, our coverage units this season will advance as a group with all the lanes filled, bottling up the returner for short gains rather than trying individually for the high-light reel "kill-shot".

always_vol (Inactive) writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

I never understood why Fulmer would squib a kick off with the lead and 2 minutes left in the game..That kind of bad coaching use to drive me insane!!! Best defense on a kick off is a touch back. Simple strategy and our incoming kicker is known for that..Any improvement on kick returns would be great. Oku is to slow to be a threat on KO returns..I can't even remember the last time we ran a KO for a TD..Maybe somebody could refresh my memory on that one!

You squib kickoffs when your kicker cannot reach the end zone.

In essence, you are trying to put the ball up high enough for several of your guys to reach the return guy as he catches the ball (requires 3 or 4 second hang time).

This is not 'bad strategy', it's an admission that you can't get touchbacks from your kicker, and that your conventional coverage is spotty. You are trying to pin the other team back on around their 20-30 yard line.

Special teams where up and down under Phil. Jeff Hall basically won us an NC. Some of our punters where great. In later years, kick and punt coverage suffered, but I think a LOT of that had to do with Phil's lack of focus on the whole program.

For the rest of his life, Phil will wonder 'what if I'd hired the Michigan guys....'

bigfogg writes:

As is the case in most instances, coaches get too much credit for some things and not enough on others. I do not see this guy being any different. Ask the players and they wil say he is like most others, nothing special. But the media want to take everything new and make it out to be awesome. Everyone wants to make the new kicker and punter out to be the next Lou Groza and Ray Guy. Did you see the All Star game when Palardy kicked two balls into the line and now you have a punter Darr,who has switched schools not once but three times. I wish the VOLS the very best but you can take this whole coaching staff but the new D-Coord and toss em. They make me sick with the way they have treated the players.

pdhuff#552644 writes:

in response to FreeTDTN:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Didn't Dupree return a blocked Halls Crossing FG try the wrong way for a safety once?

OrangePride writes:

in response to DoctorVol50:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

First, Tennessee is not getting "none." Second, it is not as if we have "no horses." I doubt that Tennessee and Vandy are comparable programs (except in your mind), so let's not even go there. And I don't think Tennessee was the only team that had trouble keeping up with Harvin, so that is hardly the tell-tale sign for a program in total failure. Yes, the proof will be in what we see on the field over the next seasons. The hopes for all of us here are that we are moving in the right direction and will field entertaining, competitive football teams as we continue to grow. If we do that, recruits will be in here and in significant numbers. Too bad you have such a poor opinion of our team.......but if it's such a "brutal" experience, why not tune into the cooking shows. GBO

rootin4volz writes:

in response to 537081:

I can't count the times I've cursted the kickoff teams. I sure hope we can do better. Now less work on 3rd and long.

Cursted? Really, dude...Cursted? Don't ya mean CURSED? Yeah...I thought you did.

OrangePsyched writes:

Hey DocVol...once again you are guilty of malpractice. I can't recall ever reading a positive comment from you. Are you a troll with a UT fetish like the others or just still have a mancrush on Fulmer? Either way to answer your quesion...yes we do believe in the Big Orange like we say. That's why you can just call us fans without the word fair weather attached as with you.

GhostofRobertNeyland writes:

The worst squib kick ever was the Georgia game (2001) after Travis Stephens ran a screen pass for a td with just a minute or so to go. I hurt for days.

Huttdawg100 writes:

in response to HtownVol:

This is important to us VOL fans and we all know why.
UT vs Bama 2009.

That is the MAIN reason that UT fans are ashamed of our special teams.
Lets face it. 2 blocked FG's in a few minutes. If UT could have made one of those field goals, UT could have turned their season into a much better bowl game.

Lets hope that this staff and our prized Kicker and Punter (who will likely be a pretty good punt coverage tackler as well) are enough to turn the ST play around.

Also, people that keep sayng UT is lacking in talent are really over looking recruiting. Two straight top 10 classes and the 2 before were not great but still above average (as in top 35).

Yes the O-line is inexperienced but we do have talent (J. Stone ,J. James both top 5 O-Line recruits)
QB - Tyler was a top 6 ranked QB recruit.
WR - Loaded. Hunter,Rogers,Moore,Jones, Milton ...
RB - Oku, Poole, Williams, Neal
On and on
So, the issue is not talent, it is experience. My OPINION is that UT will be so much better off with Tyler starting the season at QB. He has a far stronger arm than Simms. And for being a freshman in the O-W game he appeared to make much better decisions also. Starting Tyler will also pay off next season as the Offense will have experience and the QB returning for 3 mor years. But this is CDDs decision and he wants to win more than any of us.

My question is WHAT IS BRYCE BROWN GOING TO DO?
..one more. Last year (Lil Kittens 1st recruiting class) we signed a WR James Green, anyone know what the deal is with him?

GO VOLS!

We do have talented players: Poole, Jackson, Chris Walker. However, we lack depth in some key areas: offensive line, defensive backs, and defensive line. We can't afford to lose anyone on the offensive and/or defensive lines this year, and that might be impossible because of our conference. I do think that if we can avoid injury moving into the Ole Miss game, we'll definitely finish 2010 strong.

Considering our depth issues, it will be highly important to get good production in the third phase of the game. We're going to have to play "Beamer Ball" and block field Goals and punts. We've got to obtain good field position for our inexperienced offense; starting our offensive possessions at the 40 or 50 yard line would be HUGE! And pinning teams within their own 20 could definitely take some heat off of our defense. It's gonna be tough, but I'm buckled in for the long haul with Coach Dooley and Tennessee football.

orangecountyvols writes:

in response to OrangePsyched:

Hey DocVol...once again you are guilty of malpractice. I can't recall ever reading a positive comment from you. Are you a troll with a UT fetish like the others or just still have a mancrush on Fulmer? Either way to answer your quesion...yes we do believe in the Big Orange like we say. That's why you can just call us fans without the word fair weather attached as with you.

Justsayn,

You hit a home run describing this so called DoctorVol. Anytime you see his screen name, it's best not to read his negative rambling. And, to use such words as "we, us, and our" by him as a pathetic joke. He is no more a Vol fan than you and I are Florida or Alabama fans.

Pretty sad existence to always look on the sarcastic/negative side of everything but that's what some do, unfortunately. However, he seems to know more about Tennessee football so if we win some games, no doubt he'll hop on the bandwagon to take the credit. We can understand the trolls, but this one makes you wonder if he isn't one also, or.......
a plant.

crimsonviper writes:

in response to FreeTDTN:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Dupree never could understand why the eyeholes were so far apart.

wazzya69vol writes:

in response to Mtnbiker:

Maybe I'm just emotional this morning, but that one fired me up.

ditto,,, no that's a big DITTO!!!

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