Last season Tennessee's defense had a pair of fumble recoveries result in touchdowns and a kickoff returned for a score by Mark Jones. In the last three years, the Vols have intercepted a total of 33 passes in 36 games returning one for a touchdown. The 1970 Vols intercepted 36 passes in 11 games led by Bobby Majors with 10 which is one more than the entire 2000 Tennessee team. Jackie Walker who played on that same squad returned five interception for touchdowns in three years or four more than UT's total for the last three seasons.
No doubt this is a different era in which press coverage is preferred to the zone coverage played in 1970 and offenses are designed to avoid mistakes, disdaining deep throws for higher percentage passes. It's easier to get interceptions playing an area where you watch the quarterback than it is playing man coverage where your back is to the passer. However, it still largely comes down to effectiveness of your personnel. For instance: Miami was dominating on defense last season using a base cover two package that rarely relied on the blitz to pressure the passer.
Tennessee's plans to create turnovers by attacking with linebackers, line stunts and zone blitzes were essentially derailed by injuries, as Constantin Ritzmann, Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon went down in rapid succession. Injuries in the secondary also prevented the Vols from developing continuity, a consistent rotation or a dynamic dime (or nickel) package.
Likewise, UT hasn't had a big-time return specialist since Terry Fair graduated in 1997, although Eric Parker was very consistent. Both Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington had excellent potential in such a role, but their value on at receiver was too great to risk injury on special teams.
That's why the signing of Rock Hill, S.C., DB Jonathan "J.J." Hefney may be one of the biggest and most overlooked acquisitions in the Class of 2003. Hefney, 5-10, 172, appears to be made for the role of nickel back and return specialist. Not only does he have 4.39 speed, but he also has incredible quickness and more open field moves than a jack rabbit in mating season.
An option quarterback who rushed for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing four TDs, he also scored five touchdowns on special teams and one on defense. He intercepted 23 passes in his high school career including three in one game in which he took two the distance. A four-sport star at Rock Hill, Hefney broke the school record for consecutive starts with 56, eclipsing the mark formerly held by current Pittsburgh Steeler Chris Hope.
Hefney said he works out during the summer with Hope and is also good friends with the son of former Steeler DB Donnie Shell, who has praised Hefney as one of the most advanced cover corners he has seen at the high school level.
"He works with me all the time," Hefney said when asked about Hope. "In the offseason, we run with the other players. He's helped me out a lot."
Hefney has also been helped by his brother-in-law Tony Watkins who played at South Carolina. He credits Watkins with teaching him the importance of relaxing before big games.
"It's from the people I've seen in the past," Hefney said of his performance in big games. "My brother-in-law played at South Carolina and he told me not to worry about it being a big game, just go out there and play. He liked to stay calm until the game starts and that's what I do."
The low key approach worked for Hefney last year in the South Carolina 4A title game in which he intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown.
In one game during his career, Hefney scored a 60-yard touchdown on a quarterback option in which he turned Miami linebacker Roger MacIntosh grasping for air.
"He was the only player between me and the goal and I made a move on him and scored a 60-yard touchdown," Hefney said. "I went inside and then outside and back inside and he just fell."
It's such maneuvers that make Hefney difficult to contain on kick returns, as he has a knack for running under control and using his speed in bursts and in combination with his quickness.
"When I run I don't really run fast," he explained. "I'm quick and I run fast when I need to. On defense, I think I'm best reading the ball an knowing where it's going. We had five DBs and matched up man the whole time since my ninth grade year."
Hefney sees a similar role for himself at Tennessee and thinks he can help the Vols as a true freshman.
"They say with five DBs I could get into the nickel package and return punts," he said. "That's what I want to do is return punts."
Hefney is currently lifting weights and doing a lot of conditioning work and he returned to baseball this summer after giving up the game his freshman year in high school.
"I played varsity baseball my eighth grade year, but I stopped my ninth grade year to run track," he said. "I never went back until my mom told me I should try it again so I went back and made it as a center fielder on the American Legion team. I guess now that I'm stronger, I can hit the ball further."
Hefney is benching about 250 pounds and wants to increase his strength while adding a little weight this summer. He plans to major in communications with the goal of eventually entering sports broadcasting.
"When I go (to UT) I want to stay all four years," he said. "My mom wants me to get my degree."
It may have been a surprise to some Vol fans when Hefney committed to Tennessee, but UT coaches had the quick cover corner on their board for quite a while.
"It was Tennessee, North Carolina State and South Carolina," he said of his finalists. "South Carolina waited until like the last second to really push at me. Tennessee offered me since my 11th grade year, so I was really wanting to go there."
Tennessee continues to its effort to get Hefney on board this fall by encouraging him to prepare for and pass his ACT or SAT.
"I still have to go take my SAT," he said. "Coach Brooks has been on me about what I need to get. He's like my brother or parents or something. He's supporting me and wanting me to get my test score. I was two points away last time on my ACT. I took that again and think I did pretty good. I figured I could do the SAT because I'm better in English. If my test comes back and it's okay, I will go up in July."
If the explosive J.J. makes his test score, he could turn Tennessee's punt returns into dynamite.