KNOXVILLE — During his final three seasons as the coach at Louisiana Tech, Derek Dooley never had to worry about who would return punts and kickoffs.
Tennessee's second-year coach then had the diminutive Phillip Livas, who at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, tied the NCAA record for career return touchdowns with eight (four punts and four kickoffs).
"We called him 'Saturday Night Livas,'" Dooley recalled Tuesday morning.
Dooley barely had to venture 10 minutes from UT's campus to find a similar prototype.
While Devrin Young has a long way to go to earn his own nickname and reach an NCAA record, the freshman return specialist needed just five games to turn the Volunteers' return game from embarrassment to threat.
"It's just a combination of things," said the 5-8, 165-pound Knoxville native. "It's like a chain reaction: Everybody has to do their job for something to happen. The guys are opening up holes for me, and I'm just using my speed to hit them. Everybody is doing their job."
On his first collegiate play, Young went 43 yards and nearly broke a punt return for a touchdown against Buffalo. The return was UT's longest since 2007 and an unusual sight after last season, when the Vols tried six punt returners and chose not to use one late in the year.
Young provided an immediate spark against better competition, too. He had a 20-yard punt return and a 50-yard kickoff return against 18th-ranked Georgia and kickoff returns of 60 and 38 yards against top-ranked LSU and 10th-ranked South Carolina. His 18.3-yard punt-return average would lead the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify.
The Vols probably wish they had Young all season. He missed all of preseason training camp and the first three games with a broken collarbone, though Dooley flirted with the idea of debuting Young at Florida last month.
"I didn't really see him do anything until the week of the Florida game [in] practice," Dooley said. "He looked [like] what we thought he was going to look like when we signed him that week. I just wanted to get two weeks of practice before we threw him out in the game. Of course, first time he touched it, I said, 'That's what we were wanting.'
"He's going to be [up and down] because he's learning how to prepare. We go out there in the game last week and we know which way they're kicking it -- we practiced all week -- and he lines up on the wrong side. I'm screaming on the sidelines and we get him right and he rat-traps sometimes, and that's what most freshmen do. He's doing a really good job and he's giving us a spark in the return game."
The coach suggested Monday that the speedy Young could get more touches to help an ailing offense. The Vols have gotten him involved in a variety of ways, including as a traditional tailback and on reverses in the running game and on bubble screens and shovel passes.
Young took a big hit against Alabama, which limited him some in practice early last week and made Dooley "nervous" to use him on offense against South Carolina. Young's stature affects his durability and ball security, though Dooley had Young carry a football all around the practice field for a few weeks to improve it.
"We've got to get him the ball more. We do," Dooley said Monday. "When he gets hit, all of a sudden he comes back hobbling, and then you really get nervous because where do you go on the return game? That's been a real bright spot for us. He's been a good weapon for us."
Dooley noted how "fearless" Young played last week, which is an important part of the formula in an otherwise simple task. Young said the Vols' blocking schemes are easy and the only options are to run "to the left, the right or the middle." His speed is important as a returner, but the desire to go full speed with conviction toward a coverage unit that's also at full speed takes some degree of courage.
"I think it's just a combination of something you have and you develop," Young said. "You obviously develop the confidence, but you've just to go out there with no fear, or you're going to lock up. I'm just out here playing. The 'fearless' comes in the conversation because I'm smaller, but everybody that's out here has to be fearless."
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 ...