Mixed Skyhawk bag will test special Vols
Posted: Friday, September 3, 2010 3:57 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee’s new special teams coach, Eric Russell, really doesn’t know what to expect from UT Martin this weekend. For a special teams unit that’s worked hard to improve after struggling in recent years, the uncertainty will be a good test.
“What is it going to be, and how will your kids line up and react to something that they have not seen?” Russell said. “That’s where the fundamentals and the rules of their assignments hopefully come into play. Unfortunately, there’s one way will find out on Saturday if we got the right things taught.”
UTM has a new special teams coach of their own in Ryan Nielsen, who doesn’t have a background in the discipline. That means there’s no tape to study up on his strategies.
And under coach Jason Simpson, the Football Championship Subdivision Skyhawks have been known to throw every trick play in the book at Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.
“You try (to prepare), but you’re guessing,” said Russell, who also coaches the Vols’ tight ends. “If you watch them last year against Memphis, they faked a field goal. They faked a punt. They did an onside kick — a surprise onside kick. You’ve got to believe they’re going to come in here doing the same thing.”
The Volunteers didn’t exactly have a stellar special teams performance last season.
They gave up touchdowns on a 95-yard kickoff return and a 100-yard return. On the other side of the ball, two blocked field goal attempts cost the Vols a chance to upset eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa. They also struggled with punt returns, taking only 12 and returning them for an average 9.3 yards.
The Skyhawks are just as uncertain about the Vols, who are under new management. Russell coached special teams at Texas Tech a year ago, head coach Derek Dooley hailed from Louisiana Tech, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox served the same role at Boise State while offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is one of the few holdovers from last year’s Tennessee staff.
“Schematic-wise we’re having to watch Louisiana Tech tape, Texas Tech, Boise State and Tennessee,” Simpson said. “You can’t get ready for it all but you try to look at it and have plan A, B and C.”
Russell has heard about Tennessee’s foibles on special teams, but he hasn’t done much to review what caused them.
He’s just drilling the Vols the only way he knows how — relentlessly.
He usually runs drills three times a practice and holds daily meetings, which Russell admits sometimes go a little long.
It’s a bit more of a special teams focus than the Vols are accustomed to.
Under former coach Lane Kiffin last season, Eddie Gran coordinated special teams while coaching running backs. In coach Phillip Fulmer’s tenure, all assistants split special teams duty with no one coordinator focusing on it.
“This is the best coaching team we’ve had, special teams-wise,” senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said.
Jones will return punts for the first time since his sophomore season, when he returned 15 punts for an average 10 yards each. He was hobbled by a nagging ankle injury last season that kept him from fielding punts but is glad to be healthy and back in his specialist role.
“I actually went on scout team, and said I was going to show them one way or the other that I could do it,” Jones said. “I made a couple of guys miss, and coach Dooley liked what he saw and put me back there. I am very excited. I love punt returns. I love the adrenaline rush of being back there.”
Sophomore running back David Oku will return kickoffs for a second season after returning 33 last year for an average 26.2 yards. Senior Daniel Lincoln, who made 10 of 16 field goal attempts in 2009, will again handle place-kicking duties, while senior Chad Cunningham will punt for a second season.
Considering how many fresh faces the Vols have on both offense and defense, the experience among the specialists is somewhat refreshing for Russell. He still thinks the veterans need work on fundamentals and techniques as much as anyone on special teams, though.
“We’ve tried to put an extra amount into fielding balls and that phase of the game,” he said. “It is at least a little comforting to know they’ve at least been in a game, because there’s a lot of guys we’re rolling out there Saturday that have never been in that stadium and a lot of coaches that haven’t been in that stadium.”