Tennessee Stat Book
When your football team is playing with a short deck, you’ve got to find some kind of edge on an opponent who might be superior in talent, experience or depth.
Special teams, anyone?
Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.
Here’s one yardstick on the so-called “hidden yardage” in Tennessee’s 31-17 loss to Florida — the Gators averaged starting their possessions on their 41, the Vols on their 26.
“That’s a big discrepancy,’’ coach Derek Dooley said Monday.
Dooley’s first season at Tennessee has been beset with handicaps resulting from the attrition created by back-to-back coaching changes.
You can’t call down to the farm team this week and bring up some promising offensive linemen to play against UAB on Saturday.
You can’t trade a draft pick to Michigan for emergency help at defensive tackle.
And, apparently, you can’t expect special teams to be exempt from the shortages that plague the rest of the depth chart.
“I’ve always said that special teams is sort of a microcosm of your team,’’ Dooley said, “and our depth issues, it really shows up.’’
The Vols are doing several things quite well in the kicking game. Senior Daniel Lincoln is perfect on five field-goal tries.
Senior Chad Cunningham is middle-of-the-pack in SEC punting stats but was outstanding against the Gators, averaging 44.4 yards and giving Florida zip to return.
There’s something to be said for having been there and done that.
“I’m a million times better,’’ Cunningham said of his progression from sophomore to senior seasons. “That’s definitely the best day I’ve had against Florida in my career.’’
All coaches claim to pay great attention to special teams. Dooley is no exception.
“I’ve been blessed,’’ he said. “Wherever I’ve been, we’ve always been really good in the return game.’’
Until he got to UT.
The Vols are 117th out of 118 teams nationally in punt returns with a combined minus-6 yards in three games.
I hope you recall Eric Gordon’s 2-yard return in the second quarter against Florida. It was the highlight of the season thus far. No joke.
“Eric is doing a good job so far,’’ Dooley said. “We haven’t had a lot of opportunities.’’
Kickoff returns, there have been plenty of opportunities.
The Vols rank 100th nationally at 18.13 yards a crack, a result that satisfies neither Dooley nor return man David Oku.
Dooley lit into Oku on Monday like a Florida coverage team.
“I’ve seen nothing from him,’’ Dooley said, “other than an inability to make yards.
“I don’t think he’s running with any conviction and I told him that.’’
Oku, a sophomore, more or less agrees.
“I take the blame for that completely,’’ he said.
“I think I’m over-analyzing too much. I’m looking through a straw, not opening up my eyes.’’
Historically, UT has taken great pride in the kicking game. And kickoff returns have been the Vols’ best department.
In the past 20 years, UT has led the SEC in kickoff returns six times. No other school comes close. Still, it’s been since 2004 that a Vol returned a kickoff for a touchdown and that was an onside kick that took a lucky bounce.
In the past 20 years the Vols have led the league in punt returns only twice and not since 1997.
No one’s taken one to the checkerboard since Mark Jones in 2003.
“You have to have two things to be good,’’ Dooley said.
“You’ve got to have a good core group of guys, meaning they’ve got the size and speed to be physical and athletic in space. Then you’ve got to have some special guys returning.
“We’re still trying to develop both those areas.’’
Along with everything else they’re trying to develop. Special teams truly are a microcosm of this team.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6276.