Strange: Kicking game brings many unhappy returns

Tennessee tailback David Oku runs the ball against Oregon at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Tennessee tailback David Oku runs the ball against Oregon at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010.

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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.

Sound familiar?

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 strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276.

© 2010 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 25

jobrando#216494 writes:

Kickoffs and kickoff returns have been pitiful for years. It's cost us a number of W's.

pammyvol1000 writes:

Give it to Hunter... I hear he's fast!

volbald writes:

At least Dooley and Oku are both right. I doubt there's much improvement this year.

Ironcity writes:

I watched our punt return team and quite frankly our blockers got out of the way of UF's gunners instead of just chipping them. After watching that its no wonder a returner has 6 players around him the moment he gets the ball. What I can't understand is how someone could fake a punt and actually have it work against us because we don't rush and we don't seem to set up a return. A lot of work needed here. Glad to see Lincoln kicking good this year and I look forward to Palardy kicking off against UAB.

mdvol writes:

Definitely seen enough of Oku returning kicks. He just seems slower since he put on the 20 lbs. Hunter, DaRick, Gordon, hell....even Zach Rogers. Sounds like Dooley will make the move.

We are going to surprise some damn people.
We will finish 5-3 in the SEC. Go bowling, 8-4 overall.

kevin151 writes:

the kickoff out of bounds was complete garbage Saturday

tovolny writes:

I heard from a reasonable source that one of the UT Cheerleaders (male) often kicks the ball through the end-zone from the 30 while just goofing around before cheerleader practice. These guys are usually pretty athletic...I say let's suit him up. Seriously they say it is true. He also kicks the thing very high, they say.

orangecountyvols writes:

We look around and hope to see someone like a Dale Carter or Willie Gault..........but they just aren't there. But that's the type of player we need to run these kicks back. Also a little blocking doesn't hurt either.

Watching Oku run back to the 20 and then fall down won't get it done. What do some of you think about Teague back there? I don't know. Seems first of all the guys have to have the ability to hang onto the ball plus they need to be able to take it to the house or to mid field occasionally. CDD is definitely looking at it big time.

Comments from Vols? No trolls comments, however.

Timed_vol (Inactive) writes:

in response to orangecountyvols:

We look around and hope to see someone like a Dale Carter or Willie Gault..........but they just aren't there. But that's the type of player we need to run these kicks back. Also a little blocking doesn't hurt either.

Watching Oku run back to the 20 and then fall down won't get it done. What do some of you think about Teague back there? I don't know. Seems first of all the guys have to have the ability to hang onto the ball plus they need to be able to take it to the house or to mid field occasionally. CDD is definitely looking at it big time.

Comments from Vols? No trolls comments, however.

Who knows?? Oregon torched us with speed. UF was at least somewhat faster.

I think what Derek is saying, too: we don't pop up and hit people like we should.

Timed_vol (Inactive) writes:

in response to tovolny:

I heard from a reasonable source that one of the UT Cheerleaders (male) often kicks the ball through the end-zone from the 30 while just goofing around before cheerleader practice. These guys are usually pretty athletic...I say let's suit him up. Seriously they say it is true. He also kicks the thing very high, they say.

If where true, would not take much to get a tryout. In fact, I think any kids on campus who can
1) flat-out fly
2) weigh 300 pounds and bench 300 pounds
or
3) kick the ball for touchbacks
could easily get a tryout.

Timed_vol (Inactive) writes:

in response to Timed_vol:

If where true, would not take much to get a tryout. In fact, I think any kids on campus who can
1) flat-out fly
2) weigh 300 pounds and bench 300 pounds
or
3) kick the ball for touchbacks
could easily get a tryout.

and, male, female, or orangutan. as long as their academics are in order.

WinkeyVol writes:

When returning kickoffs, seems like Oku hesitates and starts taking baby steps when he gets up to the point of contact. I guess he is looking for an opening which is never there.I've never seen anything like it. Every thing is so balled up. Maybe if he tried bouncing to the outside ?

PopsinCapetownSA writes:

Tenn is too small. Ala/Fla each have around 20 players weighing 300lbs or more. Tenn has 11 that are 300lbs or more. I often look at the size of players and I remember 10 yrs ago tenn had 14 weighing 300 or more. I count a 295 as a 300 pounder. POPS

tonyvick#213307 writes:

"A million times better" geez...

pdhuff#552644 writes:

We can only look for better days and support the 2010 edition which competed very well Sat.

Things like end zone picks and 26 yd punts will do you in.

RemembertheAlamo writes:

in response to orangecountyvols:

We look around and hope to see someone like a Dale Carter or Willie Gault..........but they just aren't there. But that's the type of player we need to run these kicks back. Also a little blocking doesn't hurt either.

Watching Oku run back to the 20 and then fall down won't get it done. What do some of you think about Teague back there? I don't know. Seems first of all the guys have to have the ability to hang onto the ball plus they need to be able to take it to the house or to mid field occasionally. CDD is definitely looking at it big time.

Comments from Vols? No trolls comments, however.

Hunter, fastest man on the team. Could be another Willie Gault.

cloudodust writes:

in response to WEAREBETTERTHANVANDY:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

At this point, bet on upseting Alabama...

RemembertheAlamo writes:

in response to tovolny:

I heard from a reasonable source that one of the UT Cheerleaders (male) often kicks the ball through the end-zone from the 30 while just goofing around before cheerleader practice. These guys are usually pretty athletic...I say let's suit him up. Seriously they say it is true. He also kicks the thing very high, they say.

Is that 80 yards or 40 yards (from our 30 or their 30)?

PelicanVOL writes:

Special teams definitely looks "special" this year. Watching the game the other day, my father in law commented, "who's the kid with the lead feet returning kicks?" How embarrassing, it's David Oku. When someone who doesn't watch that much football notices he is slow, then that's a problem. I say Dooley gets someone in there that wants to return the ball, runs north south and doesn't turn his back to the defense when a defender comes up to hit him. Watch the replays of every kick he has ever returned, he never gets tackled with his head up. Cunningham is a disgrace, as he displayed with that kick out of bounds after we scored a TD vs Florida. Get Palardy out there. And the other issue on special teams is coverage, I am so sick of the other team starting at their 40 yard line on average. Either these kids are scared or aren't getting taught on how to break the wedge, of course low line drive kicks that go 40 yards don't help either. Just fix this garbage already, it's happened too often for too long. It's sad that the article has to go back 20 years to find some positive news to report about our special teams at UT.

GO VOLS!!!

leedsvol2007 writes:

One thing I have noticed about our kickoff returns for several years is indecisiveness when taking them out of the end zone.

On a kickoff return the returner has to get up into his blockers and use his vision to cut to daylight. If you dance your done. Once you pop through the first wave then you have a chance to hit one.

On punt returns you have to have a guy that can make at least the first and hopefully the 2nd man miss.

Often good punt return guys are mediocre kickoff returners and vice-versa.

I thought on one kickoff Oku had a chance to break a big one but when he got to his line of blockers he hesitated.

His power and speed should make him an ideal kickoff returner but he has to learn to make the best of the space he has to get into the open field.

GoVols!

dtennessee#235123 writes:

Great special teams? What decade was that? General Neyland in the 50's. Tennessee has given up ten Touchdowns on returns since 2004. Three on punt returns, (two by by James at Florida) and seven on kick-offs.

That's pathetic and must be fixed.

A blocked FG's cost us a win against the National Champions last year. So please, don't bore me with talk about UT's kicking game. It's been horrible for years. Cafego would roll over in his grave if he saw the state of Tennessee's kicking game. GET IT FIXED.

SouthPaVol writes:

We only need to look to our legacy for the answer to our kicking game problems, Coach George "Bad News" Cafego. Inducted into the College football hall of fame in '69 and changed Willie Gault from a sprinter into a punt/kickoff returner.

richvol writes:

Too tentative is right. I have been complaining about our returners running up to the point of contact and starting to dance instead of trying to burst through. Just running full speed would be an improvement.

Punt returns start at the LOS when the punt is snapped. Look at the successful fake punt by Florida and you will notice that everyone released,except our MLB who missed the tackle. If you at least tie up the opponents line and your DB's block the speed guys then you have a chance to get several yards. I swear though that all DBs seem to be able to do is hit someone in the back. This is a phase of the game where Dooley needs smarter players...as he suggested.

jack_2222#231746 writes:

Vols actually used to win a couple of games a year due to their kicking game. Hate to say which SEC team is best in the kicking game, I can't say it, it makes me sick.

Patriotdad writes:

The CURE for the Kick returns is Spelled N-E-A-L! The dude is a KILLER on kickoffs. Go toy YOUTUBE and look him up.

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