KNOXVILLE—Tennessee is replacing its field-goal kicker and its punter, and the Volunteers still have to find a punt returner who can at least catch kicks.
Thus it’s not surprising that UT special teams coach Eric Russell is a busy man this spring practice.
“Last year was embarrassing. It really was,” Russell said after practice last Thursday of the Vols’ woefully inept punt-return game from last fall. “It wasn’t a lack of effort — we just weren’t very good at it. I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ll get there, though.”
UT went through five different punt returners last season, though by the campaign’s latter stages the Vols sometimes wouldn’t even put anyone back there because they couldn’t find anyone to become reliable at simply catching the ball.
The job is wide open this spring with a number of guys getting chances. Cornerbacks Anthony Anderson and Justin Coleman and receivers Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers and Vincent Dallas are among the group catching kickoff after kickoff and punt after punt at the start of each spring practice.
Though an incoming freshmen like Devrin Young, DeAnthony Arnett or any of a group of defensive backs the Vols signed could provide a spark in that area, Russell said he’d prefer to find a reliable returner by the end of spring.
“I hope we can find somebody in this group that we think can [do it], because it’s kind of scary to run a brand new guy out there in Neyland [Stadium] or anywhere, for that matter, in that opener,” he said.
“We want have an idea to where it’s narrowed down so then we can mix in some of the newcomers and really gear it down to where we’ve got a couple guys [who can handle kick returns]. ... We want to leave spring just feeling confident that we’re going to get the thing fielded and be fundamentally right in it. They’re going to get plenty of opportunities this spring and we’re going to catch a lot of balls and we’ll see.”
As for the Vols’ own specialists, Michael Palardy could possibly handle all the placekicking and punting duties, though that will depend on the development of punter Matt Darr, who redshirted last year. Palardy made five of his seven field-goal attempts last season as a freshman, averaged 39 yards on four punts and kicked off 45 times.
“We’d love [for] Mike for sure to grasp being a consistent field-goal kicker right now,” Russell said. “He’s going to compete [for all three kicking jobs]. We’re going to see where it all falls. Right now Matt’s running with the [first-team] punt, but it’s going to come down to who performs and competes there, not only this spring but then through the summer and fall camp.”
The sturdy, 215-pound Darr was the nation’s top-rated punter out of high school two years ago and a shot-putter on UT’s track team.
“What Matt’s got to understand,” Russell said, “is the mental aspect of things and getting ready to play. ... We’re trying to shorten him up a little bit, trying to speed him up some, because leg [strength] is not going to be the issue. I think he’s stronger, I think he’s a little more athletic [and] I think he’s started to concentrate a little bit more fundamentally on some technique stuff.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...