Vol return policy must change
Posted: Friday, September 24, 2010 6:00 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley knows squeezing more yards out of punt and kick returns could put his young, inexperienced Volunteers in a much better position on offense. One problem: The return teams have been anything but special this season.
“I’ve always said this, that the special teams is always sort of a microcosm of your team. And our depth issues, it really shows up on (special) teams,” Dooley said.
Tennessee (1-2) ranks among the bottom 25 FBS teams when it comes to kickoff and punt returns. The struggles couldn’t have been more obvious in a 31-17 loss to Florida. The Gators averaged the start of their drives at their own 41 yard line, the Vols at their own 26.
The Vols are averaging just over 18 yards on kickoff returns. David Oku, who set Tennessee’s kickoff return yardage record with 863 yards as a freshman last year, has handled the bulk of those returns, but his average yardage has dropped from 26.2 yards per return to 19.7.
Dooley has made it very clear that he isn’t happy with Oku’s returns. He’s considered using safety Janzen Jackson, cornerback Eric Gordon and a few other players instead, but Oku will have another chance against UAB (1-2) on Saturday.
“I’ve see nothing from him other than an inability to make yards,” Dooley said. “I don’t think he’s running with any conviction, and I’ve told him that. I think he runs tippy-toeing and searching.”
Oku agrees with his coach’s assessment and said he needs to do a better job of trusting in his teammates’ blocks and in his own return abilities.
“It’s just like coach Dooley says, ‘If you don’t believe in yourself, then you’re never going to get anywhere,’” Oku said. “I think that’s just the case. He’s right. It’s just not believing in yourself.”
Dooley doesn’t seem as concerned with punt returns, even though the Vols have fared much worse there. They’ve averaged minus-1.5 yards on four returns. Only Michigan is worse in the FBS with a minus-5-yard average.
Most of the negative yardage came when Gerald Jones fumbled a return for a loss of 6 yards against Tennessee-Martin before injuring his hand. Dooley is much more confident in Gordon, who has only returned two punts including team’s season long — a 2-yard return — since replacing Jones.
“Eric’s doing a good job so far,” Dooley said. “A lot of it is the field position, so they’re sky punting, and that hurts us and then there just hasn’t been a lot of opportunity.”
The Vols may not get much of a chance to improve against UAB either. The Blazers are holding opponents to minus-0.4 yard on punt returns and 13.9 yards on kickoff returns — ranking them among the stingiest special teams defenses in the nation.
History shows it may be far too much to expect the Vols to score on special teams to ease pressure on the offense. They haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2004, and their last punt return for a touchdown came 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.”