Tennessee Stat Book
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Eric Russell is nowhere close to being satisfied.
But Tennessee's special teams coordinator admits he's seen recent improvement for his punt and kickoff coverage units.
"We've been solid, better," Russell said.
"That's been encouraging. I think we've had stability in those units, we haven't been changing as many people around and we've stayed relatively healthy.
"Guys are starting to understand they've been playing with good effort and they've had some intensity about 'em, a little bit of excitedness."
While UT has struggled in the return game and has yet to swing the special-teams phase of a game in their favor, the coverage numbers demonstrate improvement.
The Vols (2-5, 0-4 SEC) are fifth in the SEC in net punting and rank second in the league and 16th nationally in kick return defense.
"They're starting to take a little pride in their coverage," Russell said, "and I think when they see the effort we're putting in and they're seeing a little success on the field, it lends you to want to keep doing it and playing better.
"I think there's just a more overall understanding of what we're trying to do in our coverage schemes."
After three consecutive opponents ranked in the top half of the SEC in return yardage, UT faces No. 17 South Carolina (5-2, 3-2) on Saturday. The Gamecocks are ninth and last in the league in the two return categories.
But UT's return game has yet to find a solution, as the Vols are 11th in the SEC in both punt and kick returns. Russell said the blocking has been good and the onus is on the returner.
"We've had air, there's been space there," he said. "It's just trying to settle on a guy that can see it and understand and hit it with conviction and trust that there's going to be some air there. We've had opportunities, the ball just hadn't ran where it's supposed to at times."
Eric Gordon remains the primary punt returner, though his partner on kickoffs has changed - tailbacks Rajion Neal and David Oku each had returns against Alabama last week.
"That's a learning experience," Russell said. "Getting those guys to understand schematically how we're trying to attack and when they need to break and where they're looking - we're still trying to educate some of these guys on that.
Status Update: Quarterback Matt Simms dressed but was limited in Thursday's practice. He wore a long black stocking on his sore left knee.
Safety Janzen Jackson, tight end Luke Stocker, receiver Denarius Moore and defensive back Rod Wilks all wore red non-contact jerseys.
Cornerback Marsalis Teague (turf toe) did some work on the side, but still appears doubtful for Saturday's game. Though Art Evans returned after missing Wednesday's practice, Prentiss Waggner and Eric Gordon worked with the first-team defense at corner.
Defensive tackle Montori Hughes and guard JerQuari Schofield both practiced, though Schofield still appears to be in the emergency role he was in against Alabama last week.
No Dime: Teague's injury may impact how much the Vols use their nickel and dime packages against South Carolina's offense.
"If they start to go empty (backfield) every snap, we've got to be ready to play our best guys on the field," UT defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "We'll get the guys ready to go the best we can and let them go out and compete."
Creer Watch: Tailback Tauren Poole said he spent Tuesday night watching his former backfield mate Lennon Creer, who left UT and transferred to Louisiana Tech after spring practice in 2009.
"That was my first time actually seeing Lennon play since he's been here and actually seeing him in some action," Poole said. "Of course I wish he was here, so we could compliment each other."
Creer, also a high-school teammate of Vols receiver Denarius Moore, ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns in Tech's 49-20 road loss to second-ranked Boise State.
Though the two didn't talk that much during their time together at UT, Poole was happy to see Creer have success.
"It's good to see him doing well because it was unfortunate the situation he was in here," Poole said, "but at least he's stepped up and he's doing well."
Patrick Brown is a freelance contributor.