Tennessee's special teams strengths have been in punt and kickoff coverage

Tennessee punter Matt Darr (5) picked up a blocked punt and runs for the first down during second half action against the Buffalo Bulls in Neyland Stadium Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.   (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2011

Tennessee punter Matt Darr (5) picked up a blocked punt and runs for the first down during second half action against the Buffalo Bulls in Neyland Stadium Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Tennessee football practice on Oct. 9, 2012

Tennessee players don't fear the cowbell

To Tennessee punter Matt Darr, a fair catch is a victory.

So when he looks at Tennessee's special teams statistics, he's impressed by the way Vols have limited opponents to 2.8 yards per return. But he's even more pleased that about 75 percent of the Vols' punts haven't been returned at all.

"If you can eliminate a return, that's a win right there," Darr said. "As long as you're getting it far enough."

For all the hand-wringing about Tennessee's special teams woes — four missed extra points, a revolving door at kicker, lack of an explosive return game — the kickoff and punt coverage teams have been exceedingly good.

As the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) prepare to play at No. 19 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.), they have allowed only 14 yards on five punt returns all year. Opponents are averaging only 19 yards per kickoff return. The longest (43 yards) came in the opening game against North Carolina State.

"Knock on wood, we've been covering kicks really good," said Tennes

see coach Derek Dooley. "The specialists are doing better. They really are. They're not where they need to be, they're not what they can be, but they're doing better ... This team is pretty good on (special) teams."

For Darr, it all starts with hang time. While fans might fixate on distance, he is just as worried about the length of time the ball stays in the air.

"You don't want to outkick your coverage. That's a big part of it. Hang (time) is huge," Darr said. "If you don't get a fair catch when you have good hang, then they're going to be slaughtered right when they get the ball."

Linebacker Channing Fugate and other special teams mavens are in charge of doing the slaughtering when needed, but they've had few chances this year.

"We take pride in it," Fugate said. "If they fair-catch it, they don't get a chance to return it. They can do that every time."

Tennessee is still roughly in the middle of the pack nationally with a net punting average of 37.3 yards, although those numbers can be skewed by situational punts. But Darr and his coaches relentlessly monitor distance and height, striving for the perfect balance.

Punts are graded on a 100-point scale weighed between the two factors. A punt at or near 100 is about 45 yards with a hang time of 4.5 seconds, Darr said.

A 50-yard punt might look more impressive, but it also must stay in the air long enough to require a fair catch or allow the coverage team to get in position.

"I just have to keep doing my job and give them a good punt to work with," Darr said.

There's been only one major gaffe on the punt team this year, and it came in the second half of Tennessee's loss to Georgia. Byron Moore missed a block and Georgia's Marc Deas smacked the ball off Darr's foot. The block gave the Bulldogs the ball on Tennessee's 35 and led to an important touchdown.

"That was a huge blow for us," Darr said. "All we can do is try to fix those mistakes and not let it happen again."

Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.

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Comments » 14

Vol_in_Mich writes:

Say What?

jobrando#216494 writes:

in response to Vol_in_Mich:

Say What?

VOLS 42 State U 14

Vol_in_Atl writes:

Soooo...Coverage teams doing such a great job that the coaching staff thought a 'pooch' kick at the end of the 1st half against georgia, after we had taken the lead, was a good idea?!? Who was the idiot that made that call?!? Not a single decent return all day, and they only have one time-out left, so we give them the ball at the 38 yd line--essentially 2 free 1st downs, and they proceed right down the field far enough to kick a field goal and tie the game...brilliant!! Does anyone still wonder why this coaching staff has to go?!? Hello!!

bfowler1161#262198 writes:

in response to collegegrovebilly:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Returns were no better under Kiffy, nor the last couple years of Fulmer.

10seVol85_Part_Deux writes:

Wow. What a bunch of negative Nellies.

Patterson has the 3rd highest kickoff return average in the SEC. Young is #5 in punt return average.

The Vols are 5th overall in punt return average and oddly 4th in FG percentage.

Situational punting makes it difficult to place Darr in the conference, specially since he hasn't punted very many times.

Palardy's distance on kickoffs could be a little better, but his touchback percentage is middle of the pack in the SEC.

We aren't great, but we could be worse. I'm just embarrassed by the missed PATs. That should never happen.

10seVol85_Part_Deux writes:

in response to bfowler1161#262198:

Returns were no better under Kiffy, nor the last couple years of Fulmer.

2007 and 2008 under Fulmer, and 1009 under Kiffin all boasted lower punt return averages than this year's Vols. Dooley's first two seasons were worse, but there was steady and significant improvement each year.

Kickoff return averages are tough to compare because of the changes to the rules. If you look just at the average kickoff return, it looks as though this year is about 3 yards average less than those Fulmer and Kiffin years, but like I said, the rules are different now. There are more touchbacks and the coverage team has five fewer yards to go to reach the returner.
Dooley's teams did show improvement each year, but I can't say exactly how the rules changes affected it this year.

bfowler1161#262198 writes:

in response to 10seVol85_Part_Deux:

2007 and 2008 under Fulmer, and 1009 under Kiffin all boasted lower punt return averages than this year's Vols. Dooley's first two seasons were worse, but there was steady and significant improvement each year.

Kickoff return averages are tough to compare because of the changes to the rules. If you look just at the average kickoff return, it looks as though this year is about 3 yards average less than those Fulmer and Kiffin years, but like I said, the rules are different now. There are more touchbacks and the coverage team has five fewer yards to go to reach the returner.
Dooley's teams did show improvement each year, but I can't say exactly how the rules changes affected it this year.

I agree. As one that grew up with the Vols turning a game around because of special teams, the last several years have been hard to watch. I have grown weary of hearing a particular section of the team is bad therefore the logic is the team is poorly coached. I tend to think the team has improved the last three years and in the end our record may not reflect it. I truly am neither a Dooley supporter or detractor. I want the Vols to win! I think improvements have been made in the coaching staff. Pittman is a huge improvement over HH. Wilcox was solid, but D did not create turnovers, which we are seeing this year. Graham has been a big plus. I do think everyone places to much emphasis on stars on these kids coming out of high school. Teague was supposed to be a super star and could play anywhere. He proved to be to slow to be a deep threat at WR and plays two hand touch at CB. Bray was a 3 star coming out of HS. He has a cannon of an arm. But I cringe every time he audibles. His game management has been questionable at best. And after this rambling post, Ill hang up and listen :)

pcorange writes:

I have to agree that our kick coverage has been a bright spot so far this season compared to last year.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

Does anybody have a kicker or "field goal specialist" that makes them all? probably maybe I guess

Point is if you make them all it has to be a bit better for the team. Well we wouldn't know about that so far. I was really pulling for Brodas. Palardy may have a little more power but something is missing here. Is it the handle on the kicks? Or maybe just a kicking teacher/coach? concentration. I've seen some pretty decent kicks from guys just playing on a field goofin' around. They weren't experts. Get your heads on straight kickers and handlers. Wow. Like they're gonna read this!

mocsandvolsfan writes:

To be fair(above poster) to Bray. He hasn't yet seen a full season. Maybe a little over a full season if you count both fresh and soph years.
He doesn't appear to be a film student but more of an action hero type.hehe

arkyvol writes:

does anybody have a copy of that punt return by arkansas last year?

td writes:

Byron scoreth a touchdown! Byron giveth up a touchdown!!!

volfaninutah writes:

in response to mocsandvolsfan:

Does anybody have a kicker or "field goal specialist" that makes them all? probably maybe I guess

Point is if you make them all it has to be a bit better for the team. Well we wouldn't know about that so far. I was really pulling for Brodas. Palardy may have a little more power but something is missing here. Is it the handle on the kicks? Or maybe just a kicking teacher/coach? concentration. I've seen some pretty decent kicks from guys just playing on a field goofin' around. They weren't experts. Get your heads on straight kickers and handlers. Wow. Like they're gonna read this!

Moc... there is a girl kicking for Greenback High School that hasn't missed an extra point all year. They average 44 pts a game. She's also 1 for 2 on field goals this year. Greenback is 1A and ranked 3rd in the state presently. She's a star soccer player in school too. Maybe UT should offer her..

foodexpert writes:

We can beat them if we all play as a unit and the defense can stop them from gashing us.
But you all need to go out and get the Original Brother Jacks Pig Burgers at Food City I cant wait to fire up the grill and tailgate! GO VOLS!!!

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