Special teams concerns

Whether 2011 is another mediocre season or a special one for the Tennessee Vols could hinge, appropriately enough, on special teams.

The Vols were poor in most areas of special teams play last fall - ranking 11th among the 12 SEC schools in punt-return average (4.1 yards) and PAT percentage (93.0), ninth in net punting (36.4 yards) and seventh in kickoff-return yards (21.5). The only areas that proved to be average or better were net kickoffs (third at 44.2 yards) and field-goal percentage (tied for third at 83.3).

Given all of the above, it's no wonder special-teams coordinator Eric Russell is a little nervous heading into Saturday's 2011 opener vs. Montana.

"You don't really ever feel comfortable going into the opener because there's so much to make sure you've covered situationally," Russell said this week. "You're not sure what they (opponent) are going to do schematically."

Because he has no idea what Montana will try to do with its kick and punt return and coverage units, Russell has to prepare his troops for every possibility.

"We've put in the work but there's still work to do," he said. "There's still a lot of areas that we need a lot of improvement. Schematically, we have an idea but — fundamentally and just getting the best guys out there — we're still searching in some spots."

Russell says there will be eight new faces on the Vols' punt-coverage unit this fall with "a couple of spots that we're not quite so sure yet. It's obviously going to be a great test come Saturday."

Stocking the coverage units is trickier than usual this fall. Normally freshman linebackers are fixtures on the coverage units but two of Tennessee's frosh 'backers, Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson, will be starting Saturday evening.

"Some of the true freshmen's heads are spinning a little bit, so we may try to limit their roles a little bit on special teams ... Maggitt and A.J. and some of those guys that are going to start defensively," Russell noted. "You'd hope they could cut their teeth on teams but that's not the way it's going to be."

The kickoff return and kickoff coverage teams will be virtually the same as last year. One noticeable absence is junior linebacker Herman Lathers, a special-teams standout in 2010 who projects to miss the first month of the 2011 season due to a fractured ankle.

"We'll see if we can replace Herm because he's a guy we're counting on to come back," Russell said. "We're looking at Izauea (Lanier) in that position but he's not as big a guy."

On a positive note, Da' Rick Rogers should be a better kickoff-return man after getting some late-season experience as a freshman in 2010.

"You hope Da'Rick understands a little better schematically this year where things are designed to go," Russell said. "We spent a lot of time with that and we're calling some stuff to try and make it easier with that."

At 6-3 and 215 pounds, Rogers dwarfs most college return specialists.

"He's got the body type you like," Russell said. "He's big and he's straight-line fast and he can be a physical guy."

The other deep man on kickoff returns will be senior tailback Tauren Poole, who Russell said "brings a good calm and some steadiness."

Tennessee's goal is to return each kickoff to at least the 30-yard line.

"Last year I think we averaged the 28.5-yard line, so we didn't get that," Russell said. "We feel we've failed if we haven't gotten it outside the 30."

Punt returns were a comedy of errors last fall until senior cornerback Anthony Anderson took over the duty in November. He isn't explosive but he's sure-handed.

"He's been doing fine," Russell said. "He's got a good confidence back there and he wants to be back there. He's done a nice job; he's a lot more calm."

Freshman tailbacks Marlin Lane and Devrin Young were expected to challenge for the punt-return job but each missed significant preseason work due to injury. Even so, Lane still might see some duty there Saturday.

Asked if he is more comfortable with the punt-return situation than last year, Russell shook his head.

"I wouldn't say we're comfortable," he said. "I would say it's a game-time decision as to who we're going to have back there."

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