Punt returns

Each time a punt is launched Saturday night at Neyland Stadium Tennessee special teams coach Eric Russell will take a deep breath ... then hold it.

When Oregon is punting he'll be hoping the Vols can field the ball cleanly. They muffed two punts in their opener vs. UT Martin. When Tennessee is punting he'll be hoping Cliff Harris doesn't return it for a touchdown. He broke two runbacks for TDs in the Ducks' opener vs. New Mexico.

Harris' returns covered 61 and 64 yards. Both occurred in the final 7:00 of the second quarter, helping bump the score from 42-0 to 59-0 at halftime. After reviewing the tapes, Russell is duly impressed.

"What I saw was a tremendous amount of athleticism, speed, confidence," the Vol aide said following Wednesday's practice. "It really opened up the floodgates right before half. It gets your attention on detail - to cover, kick direction and things like that."

Asked if watching tape of Harris' exploits made an impression on Vol coverage men this week, Russell smiled.

"I hope it does because I know it stands out to the coaching staff and myself," he said. "You don't get much sleep.... We've definitely got a challenge on our hands."

While Harris was elevating the punt return to the level of an art form last Saturday night in Eugene, Tennessee's specialists were lowering it to the level of a comedy routine in Knoxville. Gerald Jones lost the ball on UT's first punt-fielding attempt of 2010 and David Oku mishandled a subsequent punt, although the Vols recovered that one.

"We were horrible in the punt-return game," Russell conceded.

Jones, out two weeks with a broken bone in his hand, won't be returning punts this week. Oku may not be, either. Redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Gordon and freshman wideout Justin Hunter are getting a look in practice this week.

When asked if Tennessee might try a committee approach on returns, Russell winced.

"I hope it's not committee. You hope you find one," he said. "We've spent a lot of time every day this week trying to get that stuff shored up. It was disappointing Saturday. When we're catching punts you've got to put yourself in a game (tense) situation and understand how critical those little things are. There were fundamental errors that led to the dropped punts the other night, and we're going to continue to look until we can find a guy who shows he can do it and we have confidence in.

"It's not settled yet."

Whereas Tennessee's punt-return work in Game 1 was abysmal, its performance in the other phases of special teams was pretty good. Chad Cunningham averaged 40.8 yards per punt, twice pinning Martin inside its 20-yard line. The punt-coverage unit limited the Skyhawks to zero return yards. Kickoff coverage was so good that Martin started drives at its 15, 8, 20 and 2 yard lines. Daniel Lincoln was true on field goal tries of 21 and 35 yards.

Still, Russell sees plenty of room for improvement. He described the Game 1 special-teams play as "average," adding: I thought the effort was good. Execution and some schematic issues wasn't real good. I thought kickoff coverage was pretty good for a first night out. Punt has some issues we've got to clean up, and field-goal protection we've got to shore up a little bit. We weren't good enough to win in the SEC with what we had the other night."

Cliff Harris isn't Russell's only concern. Oregon's "other" return man, Kenjon Barber, is a track sprinter who compiled 1,553 all-purpose yards in 2009. Clearly, keeping Harris and Barber contained is Job 1 for Tennessee's punt-coverage unit.

"It's going to come down to fundamentals," Russell said. "If we're not fundamentally sound they'll run right by us."


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