Kickin' it into gear

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Finding a fault with Tennessee's special-teams performance against Alabama was kind of like finding a flaw with Miss America: You have to look pretty hard.

Eric Russell, who oversees Vol special teams, found one, though.

"The first punt return probably should've been a house call," he said this week. "We just missed one block, and that's the way that thing goes. Every block's critical, and you don't know which is going to be the one (that springs the return man)."

Freshman return specialist Devrin Young fielded Bama's initial punt at the Vol 22-yard line and returned it 11 yards to the 33. He was one step, however, from "taking it to the house" as the saying goes.

"That thing's going to the house if we handle the left tackle," Russell noted. "There was a lot of grass because we missed (blocking) that one tackle."

Other than that, the only blemish on the Vols' special-teams performance was a 34-yard punt by Michael Palardy that Alabama returned 4 yards to its 40-yard line and parlayed into a second-quarter field goal.

To say Palardy atoned for the short punt might be the understatement of the season. Four subsequent punts averaged 41.5 yards with zero returns. He finished with a gross average of 40.0 yards and a net average of 39.2 yards.

"You'll take that every day of the week, no doubt," Russell said. "You don't have to hit it 45 or 50 yards if you can hang it up there for 4.8 to 5.0 (seconds) and give us a chance to cover, and he did that."

In addition, Palardy placed his kickoffs fairly well and nailed field goals of 40 and 52 yards, the latter being a career best by 9 yards. He even completed a five-yard pass on a fourth-and-four fake punt, extending a drive that ultimately produced his 52-yard field goal.

"Mike did a good job, and it was good to see," Russell said. "Mike needed it. I hope it's something he builds off of. If there's any confidence issues I hope he can say he went into one of the most hostile places against one of the best teams in America and performed like he was supposed to."

Head coach Derek Dooley prefers that two players share the kicking duties but Matt Darr's inconsistent punting of late forced Palardy to handle punts, kickoffs and placements versus Alabama.

Freshman Devrin Young had a solid performance in the return game against Alabama.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

"I don't think it's the ideal," Russell said. "Matt's here for a reason but last week there was no reason to make a change with what was going on. Mike was getting good hang time and putting the ball where we asked him to put it."

Palardy wasn't the only special-teams standout Saturday night. The kickoff coverage unit limited Bama to a mere 12.0 yards per return. Conversely, Young and fellow freshman Marlin Lane averaged 21.3 yards on kickoff returns for the Vols.

Given how poor Tennessee's special-teams play was in Games 1 through 6, Russell had to be thrilled with the performance in Game 7.

"The overall performance and lack of any miscues was refreshing," he said. "But there's still some things to improve on. I thought we left some yards out there on kickoff return. We didn't quite hit it where we needed to hit it on some things.

"Obviously, I was disappointed that it didn't help us win. We didn't make any game-changing plays that produced a score (by the opponent) or set up a score, which was good, but the outcome obviously isn't what you want. We're proud of the group. It was a good effort on special teams."

The Vol aide is hoping the special-teams corps can repeat its Game 7 performance in every game going forward.

"You just hope that's going to be the standard," Russell said. "If we can get a little more dynamic athlete in here who can do more things, we can hopefully get better, but last week was a good start. I was proud of 'em."

Tennessee currently has but one "dynamic athlete" on special teams. Young, though only 5-8 and 165 pounds, is averaging 24.6 yards on kickoff returns and an eye-popping 18.2 yards on punt returns. He has significantly upgraded both areas in the four games since he recovered from a preseason collarbone injury.

"It was probably as well-blocked a return game last week as we've had," Russell said. "I think a lot of that goes back to the fact that those guys (blockers) understand there's a guy back there that can make something happen if you give him a little bit of air."

The Vol aide said the special-teams performance versus Alabama "might be the most productive" since he has been at Tennessee but admitted that he didn't see it coming.

"No," he said with a laugh. "Trust me, I didn't sleep much last week. That had to do with what we were doing in practice last week and what they (Tide) were coming at us with. That (strong performance) was a credit to our kids playing with confidence. You didn't see a hesitancy in the huddle or anything."

Coaching special teams requires nerves of steel because there are so many little things that can produce a big disaster. One guy lining up out of position can cause a punt to be blocked. One player getting bumped out of his coverage lane can give the opponent a 95-yard touchdown return. One mishandled snap can lead to a blocked field-goal try. You wonder if a special-teams coach ever feels truly comfortable.

"I think there's times where you get to points where you feel pretty good, that we can handle what's going on," Russell said. "Do you execute it 100 percent? No. Every play there's something (that goes wrong). But you can get to a point where you're pretty confident, when you know you've got a pretty good unit. Last year you could see it in our kickoff coverage unit — their tempo, the way they worked out here (on the practice field), the intensity they brought to the games."

Most of the players on last year's coverage units were seniors who are no longer part of the program. As a result, Russell spends a lot of time emphasizing seemingly minor details to the younger players covering kicks and punts this fall.

"We don't have a lot of guys that understand what good is and the commitment to the little things and details," the coach said. "I can't tell you on any return which guy is going to be the one to make the tackle or which block is going to be the one to spring it. You've got to believe, though, that it matters."

Volunteers Brian Randolph (37) and Anthony Anderson converge on Alabama kick returner Marquis Maze.


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