Derek Dooley talks about seeing improvement following 4 straight losses
One touch was all it took.
Devrin Young proved he belonged on the stage at Tennessee.
The freshman's teammates quickly found out they had somebody capable of providing a jolt for the special teams.
And Derek Dooley got some instant validation, with the Vols coach seeing for the first time up close what Young could do with the ball in his hands.
The Bearden High School graduate packed all that into just one punt return that was a desperation tackle away from being a touchdown in his debut outing against Buffalo a little more than a month ago. And with no signs of slowing down even against tougher competition since the first time Young put his hands on the ball, the trick now might be finding more ways to get it there as the Vols prepare for Middle Tennessee State on Saturday (TV: FSTN, 7 p.m.).
"You know, the first time being out on the field, I was a little nervous," Young said after practice on Tuesday. "But once it was over, I just felt very happy and felt like I had earned a little bit of the team's respect and their accountability for me.
"Conference play was a little different than playing Buffalo, obviously. After I got hit pretty good a few times, I just felt like a part of the team finally."
Young had to wait longer than he or the Vols (3-5, 0-5 SEC) wanted after breaking his collarbone just before training camp opened, and the recovery time kept him out of action for each of the first three games.
That cost him valuable reps as he made the transition to a faster, more physi
cal level of competition, and it also prevented Dooley and the coaching staff from finding out what Young might really bring to the table as a freshman.
An electrifying 43-yard punt return gave them a pretty good idea once Young was able to get on the field, and there have been signs that his success there could spill over into the offensive game plan against the Blue Raiders (2-5, 1-3 Sun Belt) — assuming it doesn't force UT to sacrifice anything on special teams.
"We probably need to get him more involved," Dooley said. "There's been a couple of things. One, he got hit in that Alabama game pretty hard, so we were nervous about using him too much (last week against South Carolina). He went a couple of days in that green (non-contact) shirt.
"We've got to get him the ball more, we do. It's just really a combination of we're getting more confidence in him every week and he kind of got set back. When he gets hit, all of a sudden he comes back hobbling and then you really get nervous because where do you go on return game? That's been a real bright spot for us."
A year ago it was about as dark as possible, with Dooley repeatedly calling the return game an embarrassment and occasionally not sending anybody back to field punts as the fumbles piled up.
Young has had one issue with ball security himself already, with his turnover coming later in the otherwise promising outing against Buffalo. But since then, he's taken some brutal shots against a couple of the most talented teams in the country without giving the ball away — and he's inflicted some of his own punishment by averaging more than 18 yards per punt return and 25 on kickoffs.
And the chance to do a little more damage out of the backfield or in the slot for the Vols on offense might be coming soon.
"I just see myself being used however a small guy gets used in the offense, just speed and getting to the perimeter," Young said. "I'm just working hard and hopefully I can increase my role.
"You get what you earn out here."