Trump card

Punt coverage, a big concern for Tennessee this fall, will be even bigger this weekend ... as in 6-1 and 222 pounds big.

That's because the Vols must contend with LSU's Patrick Peterson, who averages 31.7 yards on kickoff returns and a mind-boggling 28.1 yards on punt returns. To put that last number in perspective, consider this: The SEC runnerup in punt-return average, Joe Adams of Arkansas, is 15 yards back at 12.9.

"Right now he's taking 28 yards off every opponent's net average," Tennessee special teams coordinator Eric Russell said of Peterson. "If he takes 28 yards off our punts, that's a 12-yard net average, and that's not real good."

Peterson is surprisingly explosive for a 222-pounder. He returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown in Game 1 vs. North Carolina and another 60 yards for a TD in Game 4 vs. West Virginia. He had a long non-scoring return nullified by penalty or his average would be even higher.

So, what makes this guy so special? Basically, he's a freak - combining the speed of Eric Berry and the elusiveness of Devin Hester in the body of an outside linebacker.

"He's got a ton of confidence and, obviously, a ton of ability," Russell said. "He's got great power and speed ... and he's a big guy. He's not one of these little return specialists. He's 220-plus pounds. He's aggressive as heck, he has good vision and he's fearless."

Although he has the size to break tackles, Russell rarely needs to call on this ability. Usually, he finds a seam and explodes past opposing coverage men as if they're stuck in quicksand. That's a credit to his blockers.

"What's scary is that it's not like he's broken a lot of tackles," Russell said. "He's got 10 very athletic guys around him that are playing their tails off, knowing that if they give him a little opportunity he's going to make it happen."

Teams use an assortment of methods in hopes of containing a superior return specialist. Some punters try to use their directional skills to kick the ball away from him ... or at least pin him near the sideline, so he can be hemmed in. Other punters try to put the ball into orbit, hoping the added hang time will force him to make a fair catch ... or at least give the coverage unit time to converge on him. A few punters just kick the ball out of bounds, figuring he can't return it if he can't field it.

"Weeks like this, we try to think of every scenario," Russell said. "You go over all of the options with the head coach, then he decides what gives us the best chance to win."

Vol punter Chad Cunningham is not particularly adept at directional kicking, so that option seems unlikely this weekend.

"The thing that's hard in our situation is that we haven't been a directional-punting team," Russell said. "Our guys haven't been trained to be directional kickers, and that takes awhile to learn."

Cunningham is reasonably good at pooch-punting ... purposely booting the ball high and short.

"Because of the time it takes to get off blocks and to cover, hang time is more critical than distance," Russell said. "This week, instead of a 52-yard punt with a 3.8-second hang, we'd rather have a 35-yard punt with a 4.8 hang. Shorter and higher is better."

It's worth noting that Cunningham's longest kick of the year, a 54-yarder vs. Oregon, was returned 80 yards for a touchdown.

"That's scary. You don't want to out-kick your coverage," Russell said. "If there's that much space between the return man and your cover guy, you've got issues."

The Vols have improved their punt coverage since the mishap vs. Oregon but still have a long way to go.

"We're not where we need to be," Russell said. "We're working every week on shoring that stuff up. The Oregon punt return was pretty embarrassing. I don't think we played with a lot of effort or technique or urgency. That was a tough way to learn a lesson."

If the Vols didn't learn the lesson vs. Oregon, they'll likely learn it this weekend ... probably the first time they punt it to Patrick Peterson.

"LSU is going to have the opportunity (to score) every time we punt it this week," Russell said, "and I think our guys understand that."


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