Tennessee punt team plans to do what it does better

Derek Dooley on Vanderbilt's offense

From his spot on the opposite sidelines, Eric Russell didn't have the greatest view for what turned out to be one of the highlights of the year in college football.

All the Tennessee special teams coach saw was a swarm of white jerseys and Arkansas wide receiver Joe Adams running in the wrong direction. For a unit that hadn't been forced to tackle many punt returners all season, it was shaping up to be one of the plays of the year for the fresh-faced UT punt team.

And then it just wouldn't end.

" 'He's not down yet, what do you mean?' " Russell recalled thinking. "All of a sudden he pops out of that thing."

Sixty yards — maybe 80 yards of actual ground covered — and seven or so broken tackles later, the Vols had surrendered their first return touchdown of the year, extending a streak of allowing at least one per season since 2005.

The play served as a back-breaker in a game the Vols eventually lost 49-7. It just won't serve as a reason to change much from a schematic or personnel standpoint against visiting Vanderbilt on Saturday (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.).

"You're never going to get more guys around a ball-carrier," Russell said. "Wish I had a better answer. I could say we're going to run this or do that, but no. Do what you do and do it better."

Was it an aberration? Maybe.

Before Adams' return, the Vols (4-6, 0-6 SEC) had allowed just five to go more than 10 yards and ranked fifth in the SEC in average yards allowed per return. That was despite the inconsistent punting tandem of Matt Darr and Michael Palardy, who both struggled in last week's loss.

From Russell's perspective, though, the Vols' punt team, even after nine games, was unproven. Before the Arkansas game, opponents were averaging just a little more than one return per game.

"You come out and we coach the same things and do the same things we've been doing," Russell said. "If there was better guys to do it, we'd be using them.

"We got who we got and they're our best guys for what we're asking them to do and they've got to step up and do it."

Those players, a number of whom weren't on the punt team last year, will simply have to tackle better against Vanderbilt (5-5, 2-5), which boasts a punt return unit that averages 6.36 yards per return.

"It wasn't just arm tackles or we're just getting glances on him," Russell said. "We full-out had chances to hit, wrap and we bounced right off him. It goes to pure fundamentals and want. He wanted it more than we did on that play."

Jackson Up to Speed: Coach Derek Dooley has often remarked that freshman offensive guard Marcus Jackson was one of the Vols' strongest players from the moment he arrived on campus.

That didn't mean he was in the best of shape.

Thanks to daily jogs of four miles or more, along with a rigorous conditioning schedule that has carried on throughout the season, Jackson is down to 315 pounds. He said he's made a 60-pound turnaround, losing 30 pounds of fat and gaining 30 pounds of muscle.

"I never thought I could run four miles," Jackson said Tuesday in his first interview as a Vol. "When I'm on the treadmill, I really don't think I've done four miles when I look down at it."

Jackson, who enrolled during the spring, has started the past three games at left guard.

"He played a lot better last week than he had the first couple," Dooley said. "He looked like a true freshman out there. Showed some signs that get you encouraged, then makes some bad mistakes."

Dooley said he wasn't aware Jackson had been running so much outside of practice.

"He's lost some weight and he moves better," Dooley said. "Maybe that's why he's so sluggish in practice. I'm going to go check on that."

On the Mend: Linebacker Raiques Crump and safety Prentiss Waggner (shoulder) wore green, non-contact jerseys for the third consecutive day. Both players are expected to be available Saturday.

Freshman running back Marlin Lane and offensive guard Zach Fulton, both of whom were limited earlier in the week, were in normal jerseys and worked with their respective units at full capacity.

Wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers did not have a brace on his left knee after wearing one the previous two days.

Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble

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Comments » 9

VOLPhan writes:

in response to 10seVol85:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Oh, thank goodness... I thought all of the idiots had gone... Glad to know you are here 85!!

Prostar writes:

No Erik, you're just not tough enough on them. We tackle like sissys. We don't hit and wrap up. We try to body block or bump them. Other teams don't fear us because we're not punishing tacklers.

stevefrommemphis writes:

Since 2005, EIGHT punts have been returned for touchdowns against Tennessee. Tennessee has not returned a punt for a TD since 2003. (I'm not counting blocked punts.) I looked through old media guides to compile this information.

volbike writes:

The Vols set two records last week: The first college team to not only be on the losing side of two of the top ten ESPN plays of the week but #s one and two. Second I think they violated every Neyland maxim!!

RemembertheAlamo writes:

What I saw was 3 really good blocks against Tenneesse players on the return. The problem was the blocks were made by other Tennessee players. VFL! (#35)

CRFVols writes:

We need a new special teams coach....period. They've been consistently bad and inconsistent in the past two years. Some changes have to be made.....and I'm not buying youth and talent excuses.

MemphisHog writes:

in response to RemembertheAlamo:

What I saw was 3 really good blocks against Tenneesse players on the return. The problem was the blocks were made by other Tennessee players. VFL! (#35)

Actually, the blocking was better by Tennessee defensive players on Dennis Johnson's 75 yard TD from scrimmage. Watch that replay. Vols defenders are knocking each other off left and right, especially when he gets about 15 yards downfield.

SBWB2 writes:

Football is still about blocking, tackling, desire/effort/heart. We lack in all three. Vandy is a loss, they want it more.

I am not so sure KY is a win... almost 30 yrs! since they beat us... odds are, sooner are later...

Have been off line awhile... Did anyone else think they saw Bray chewing tobacco before the South Carolina game, spitting on the field?

Vol For Life

SpecialTeams writes:

in response to Jeff_Hall_VFL:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I watched the clip, Darr was in the thick of it but Ak had three blockers on him. It looks like he was the only Vols that did not make contact.
But what seemed stupid coaching was to put a left footed punter to directional punt in that wind, and pull Darr when he had some experience in that wind that game. After the 12 yard-err, Darr hit his 52+ yard. The Vol's mistakes never ended that game. I wonder if
o-Do-Little will Allow Darr to punt a whole game, even the long ones and see what his average turns out.

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