No laughing matter

Tennessee's punt return game was a comedy of errors last fall but Eric Russell isn't laughing. Just call him Eric the Red-Faced.

As overseer of Vol special teams, Russell was much more embarrassed than amused when punt after punt was muffed or fumbled by Tennessee's return men. No matter who he put back there, misadventure would soon follow.

"It's very frustrating, and it was when we went back and watched it," Russell said following Thursday's practice. "And it wasn't just on punts but in our kickoff return game."

Tennessee muffed or fumbled six punts last fall, which takes on added significance when you consider that the Vols returned just 18 punts all season. Tennessee's average of 4.06 yards per return ranked 109th out of the 120 schools who played in the Football Bowl Championship subdivision.

The Vols weren't a whole lot better returning kickoffs. Their 21.5-yard average ranked 67th nationally. Things got so bad at times that Russell began to second-guess himself.

"You start questioning: Is it schematic? Is it fundamentals? Is it technique?" he said. "But then you watch your tape, and you've got air (running room). We just weren't hitting things right.

"That's frustrating but it gives you hope when you go back and see that schematically we're fine. We've got to teach it better, we've got to coach it better. We've got to show them so they'll buy in and understand."

Although Tennessee's return specialists exhibited a serious case of butterfingers last fall, the problems in the punt-return game weren't confined to them. The blockers often allowed opposing "gunners" to run past them on their way to the football.

"It was frustrating for what we left on the field last year," Russell said. "Not just on the ones we dropped, but on the ones where there's a gunner in our face (because he wasn't blocked) and we had the rest of the field set up where we could've gotten some yardage."

Given all of the speedy tailbacks, receivers and defensive backs on Tennessee's roster, you'd think someone would've been able to field a punt and return it nine or 10 yards on a consistent basis. Russell says there's a lot more involved in returning a kick than raw speed, however.

"Courage, obviously," the Vol aide said, "and how instinctive are you?"

As Tennessee conclusively proved last fall, merely fielding a punt isn't as easy as it looks. The return man must read the ball's flight, much as a batter in baseball must read the flight of a curveball.

"Obviously, the nuances of understanding the path of the ball (are important)," Russell said. "Is the nose up? Is the nose down? Which way is it going to fall? Is it going to turn over?

"We found that we didn't have a guy that grasped all of that ... or at least it was natural to him."

Unless Vol coaches uncover a "natural" this spring, they'll devote more time and energy to the return game in 2011 than they did in 2010.

"I think we've figured out that we've got to coach it a little harder than we have in the past," Russell said, "because we had about six guys we tried back there last year."

Certainly, Tennessee is leaving no stone unturned in its search for a solid return specialist this spring. Fielding punts are defensive backs Anthony Anderson, Eric Gordon and Justin Coleman, along with receivers Vincent Dallas and Justin Hunter. Fielding kickoffs are receivers Dallas, Da' Rick Rogers and Zach Rogers, defensive back Coleman, plus running backs Tauren Poole and Rajion Neal.

Although Tennessee did a fairly good job on punt and kickoff coverage last season, Russell is looking for improvement in those areas, as well. He was not pleased with the effort some of his coverage men gave last fall.

"We're spending a lot of time right now working on them getting to their spots," the coach said. "It's about not being lazy getting to the football at the start of the play because that's where we were lacking last year."

Little-used cornerback Anthony Anderson led Tennessee with 13 special-teams tackles last fall. Among those tied for second place with nine stops each were second-team linebacker Austin Johnson and walk-on safety Tyler Wolf. Conversely, several of the most talented players were least effective on special teams. That's why Russell is glad he has video proof of their half-hearted efforts last fall.

"Some of our other guys weren't all in," the coach said. "Obviously, being able to watch your guys - call some of them out for lack of effort or total lack of execution fundamentally - it's good to have."

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