Tennessee's special-teams coordinator conceded there is "not a lot of sleep" to be had as he prepares his punt and kickoff coverage units for an Arkansas team that is blessed with some of the finest return men in all of college football.
Joe Adams ranks No. 1 in the SEC and No. 6 nationally with a 14.6-yard punt-return average. He has returned two punts for touchdowns this fall.
Marquel Wade ranks No. 1 in the SEC and No. 13 nationally with a 29.6-yard kickoff-return average. He has returned one kickoff for a TD.
Clearly, kicking the football to Arkansas can be hazardous to your psyche.
"It's pick your poison," Russell said.
The obvious antidote — kicking away from the return man — won't work against the Razorbacks. They utilize both Adams and Wade on punt returns, along with both Wade and Johnson on kickoff returns, so there's danger on both sides of the field at all times.
"They've got the ability to make a big play anytime any of those guys get the ball ... and it's not just one guy," Russell said. "On punt returns they're going to put two of 'em back there, and they're both very talented. Same thing on kickoff returns. It's a great challenge, and we've got to go take care of business."
Taking care of business in the kicking game is vital because Tennessee (4-5 overall, 0-5 SEC) must play a near-perfect game to hang with eighth-ranked Arkansas (8-1, 4-1). One reason the Razorbacks have been virtually unbeatable is their ability to change a game's momentum with a big play in the return game.
"Last weekend South Carolina scores to get back in it, then they (Razorbacks) get a 35- or 40-yard return or they get a house call (touchdown return)," Russell recalled. "They've done a good job with that all year.
"They've had so many close games here the last few weeks where their kickoff return team has really taken the momentum away. You've just scored but you're gutted because they're starting on a short field — 45- or 50-yard line."
Whereas a long runback motivates the return team, it demoralizes the kicking team.
|Michael Palardy is vital to the Vols winning the special teams battle.|
"As a coverage unit, it's disheartening ... 'Here we go,'" Russell said. "That's what I've stressed to our guys: We've got to keep the momentum in our coverage units."
That's a tall order, given the talent level of Arkansas's return men.
Job One will be containing Adams, a 5-11, 190-pound senior who also starts at wide receiver.
"He's got good vision, he's slippery, he's greasy, and obviously fast enough to not get caught when he gets some air," Russell said. "And he's fearless. On one return the ball bounces around, he's going backwards but is able to pick it up and avoid everybody."
Wade, a 5-11, 185-pound freshman receiver, is a blur.
"Now he's faster. No. 1 can run," Russell said. "He's averaging 30 yards on kickoff returns and around 8 or 9 on punt returns. He's a reckless player but in a good way. For a freshman, he's way beyond his years."
Because Wade is faster than any of the Vols who will be chasing him, Tennessee's punter must make sure he kicks the ball high and accurately.
"Ball placement is going to be critical," Russell said. "Hang time is going to be critical ... getting off the jams and the holds. At the same time, you can't fall asleep (protecting the punter) in case they decide to rush one and maybe block it."
Ball placement and hang time will be equally important on kickoffs. That means a key figure for the Vols will be kicker Michael Palardy, who missed last Saturday's defeat of Middle Tennessee due to a pulled muscle. Backup Chip Rhome remains sidelined by a muscle pull but third-teamer Derrick Brodus — a budding celebrity after last week's heroics — will be available.
If there is a glimmer of hope for the Vols it is the quality work of their coverage teams to date. The Big Orange is allowing just 7.4 yards per punt return and 18.3 per kickoff return.
"In this league you're always wondering week to week how good you really are," Russell said, "because it seems like there's always a big challenge coming up. But I think they've responded well.
"I don't think, kickoff coverage-wise, we've let any balls really spit out there. On punt coverage, I still contend that we haven't had many opportunities to cover (because) there have been a lot of fair catches and things of that nature.
"I think this week, obviously, is a good test of that."