Tennessee safety Janzen Jackson has no trouble admitting that he wasn’t exactly the best kick returner in high school.
Punt returning, though, was a different story.
“I had my most production on punt return,” Jackson recalled with a smile after Monday’s practice. “We had three kick returners back there, so they didn’t really kick it to me.”
Jackson will be the only punt returner on the field for the Vols on Saturday at Memphis (TV: CBS College, 8 p.m.), as he’ll step in to replace Eric Gordon, who muffed his second punt of the season Saturday at South Carolina.
“Janzen’s got a lot of ability. He’s almost our best at everything,” coach Derek Dooley said. “We’re not getting production at the position. We’ll make a change and see how Janzen does.”
Jackson will serve as the Vols’ fourth punt returner this season on a unit that ranks 108th in the nation (11th in the SEC), averaging 4.7 yards on the 10 punts it hasn’t fumbled, fair caught or let bounce untouched. Gordon fumbled once against Georgia and in the third quarter against the Gamecocks. Wide receiver Gerald Jones fumbled in the season opener against UT Martin.
“We have to have the ball back,” Jackson said. “Being able to return it is the bonus, but first you’ve got to catch the ball.”
Dooley has said in the past that he sometimes worries about putting too much on Jackson’s plate, as the sophomore safety also fills vital needs on punt and kickoff coverage, while playing virtually every snap on defense.
The move to returner, Jackson said, actually makes life easier.
‘Punt returners, unless you break it, ain’t running that far,” Jackson said.
Dooley said Jackson, who has returned punts in practice throughout the season, “looks good moving around” but “it ain’t like he’s going to get punt-catcher of the year, either.”
“I might close my eyes,” Dooley said.
Center Of Attention: On paper, James Stone is listed as UT’s backup center to Darin Gooch, but he worked with new starting quarterback Tyler Bray and the rest of the first-team offense at Monday’s practice, Bray said.
Dooley said Stone, who did not see the field for the first time this season against South Carolina, will “probably play some” at center Saturday.
“It’s time to start getting him integrated into the game,” Dooley said. “This is where we were hoping to be about six weeks ago with James.
“When (JerQuari) Schofield went down, we just had to move him at guard. That just slowed our whole development at the center position with James, so we’re kind of starting over.”
Stone is left-handed, which presents a unique challenge for quarterbacks accustomed to receiving snaps from a right-handed center, Dooley said.
“You get in the habit of catching the snap one way,” Dooley said. “Now, I wish he was right-handed. It would have been a lot easier.”
Injury Update: Linebacker Herman Lathers (back spasms) was the only player at Monday’s practice wearing a red, non-contact jersey, but a number of others are “day to day” with nagging injuries, Dooley said.
Cornerback Marsalis Teague (turf toe) and defensive tackle Montori Hughes (ankle) were noticeably limited at practice. The respective statuses of kicker Daniel Lincoln (quadriceps) and cornerback Naz Oliver (knee) will be determined as the week unfolds, Dooley said.
Wilcox In The Box: Dooley said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox would likely call plays from the press box for the rest of the season.
Wilcox, who swapped places with secondary coach Terry Joseph, had called plays from the field up until the South Carolina game.
“I think it helped us a little more in the secondary, communicating between drives and adjustments and personnel in and out of the game,” Dooley said. ”Both of our secondary guys were up top so I think that was a little help.”
Back In Action: Dooley said fullback Kevin Cooper, who was suspended for the South Carolina game because of academic reasons, was back with the team in full capacity and would be eligible to play against Memphis.
Cooper, though, may have to fight to reclaim his job, as freshman Channing Fugate was listed first on the team’s depth chart Monday.
“Ol’ Channing played pretty good,” Dooley said. “So we’ll see where it goes.”
Andrew Gribble covers Tennessee football and recruiting. He may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble/