Tennessee Stat Book
The best punt returner in the conference was effectively shut down.
Now Tennessee could be following it up with the next guy on the list.
Using a new directional approach with punter Chad Cunningham and more aggressive style to keep LSU's Patrick Peterson in check last week at Baton Rouge, the Vols appear to have found an answer to some of their debilitating woes on special teams.
Derek Dooley wouldn't tip his hand for how he'll handle the kicking game Saturday at Georgia (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.), but the Tennessee coach clearly liked what he saw against the only guy in the league averaging more yards per punt return than Bulldogs sophomore Branden Smith.
So assuming Smith is able to get back in the lineup after suffering a concussion last week against Colorado, Dooley could be dialing up more of the same.
"We were directional a lot more against (Peterson), and that was a change schematically," Dooley said after practice Tuesday. "But I think most of the stuff is just believing in the system, trusting in the technique and playing aggressive and fast without thinking.
"They believed in the plan, they played fast, they played aggressive, there wasn't a lot of thinking and the players played better. So, I was proud of them. Against a real good squad, they got challenged. We're going to have another one this week - these guys are really good on special teams. They're fast, they've got a great returner, they've got a phenomenal kicker, so it's going to be big."
For the second week in a row, it's the return guy that figures to get most of the attention from UT (2-3, 0-2 SEC).
Aside from one 26-yard return for Peterson, a coverage unit that still ranks just 100th in the country proved it was up to the task with Cunningham angling his kicks and still averaging more than 47 yards per punt.
Now they might have to back it up against another game-breaking cornerback at Georgia (1-4, 0-3), and though Smith comes with much less fanfare, only Peterson has bettered his average of 15.2 yards per return in the SEC so far this season.
"I mean, that felt great for us on special teams, especially going against the No. 1 returner in the nation," Cunningham said. "To go out there and as a team net 42, 43 yards, I don't know if that's ever happened. All aspects of special teams, we worked hard and we knew to have a chance to beat LSU we needed to be great on special teams - and we did that and had the chance at the end, we just didn't get the breaks we needed.
"But it's a thing you have to be consistent with, and it's got to happen every week. Big plays, hidden yardage, everything comes out of special teams. I mean, it is good to have a great game against a great returner. But we need to be consistent every week in everything we do."
That's not a new emphasis for UT's much-maligned special teams, and it obviously applies to more than just covering punts. But collectively against the Tigers last week, the Vols turned in probably their best all-around performance in five games under Dooley.
Half of Cunningham's four punts were downed inside the 20-yard line, Eric Gordon provided a spark in the return game with 60 yards on two kickoff returns and a 21-yarder on a punt return and the Vols also held Peterson well below his average kickoff return yardage as well.
The only blemish was a missed field goal by true freshman Michael Palardy, who had to fill in for the injured Daniel Lincoln. But the improvements elsewhere certainly helped cover up that one misstep.
"The field position is too important, especially the way we're playing," Dooley said. "We're having to grind it out. We're not a three-and-out defense like we need to be and we're certainly not a quick-strike, fast, explosive offense.
"That means we need to make them go the long way, and maybe we can make them make a mistake."
And if the Vols happen to make a mistake on special teams, they're already facing another guy who take it a long way in the other direction.