'Monumental' role

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Tennessee lacks the explosive offense to hang five touchdowns on most opponents. Tennessee lacks the impregnable defense to shut out most opponents. There is one phase, however, in which Tennessee has no excuse for being less than stellar.

Special teams.

You don't need a slew of five-star signees. You don't need imposing size or sprinter speed. You don't need tons of experience. You merely need a coach who preaches special teams and players who soak up the sermon. Tennessee has the former in Butch Jones. He emphasized special-teams play throughout preseason camp because he knows it could be the winning edge (or losing edge) in several games this fall.

"Monumental," Jones said when asked how critical special teams could be for the 2013 Vols. "You win with special teams. Special teams tell you about the makeup of your team – from role understanding to doing your job to field position. Part of playing winning defense is great special teams because it's a field-position game."

A team like Alabama that is blessed with superior talent at every offensive and defensive position can win without exceptional special-teams play. A team with the question marks and depth concerns Tennessee has cannot. Simply put, the Vols need to excel on special teams to offset some deficiencies on offense and defense.

"Our margin of error for this football team is very slim, so it is really magnified by special teams and field position," Jones said. "Special teams is going to be a critical element to winning football games for this team."

The key question: Do Tennessee's players understand that the kicking game could prove decisive in half or more of their 12 regular-season games?

"They hear it every day," Jones said. "We practice every single unit of special teams every day. It's a skill that has to be practiced day in and day out."

Every college coach professes to emphasize special teams but most give it mere lip service. Jones is an exception to this rule. Several recent workouts saw him chew out more players for special-teams blunders than for mistakes on scrimmage plays. Clearly, his enthusiasm for special teams is real, not superficial.

"Every three or four periods it's a special-teams period," senior linebacker Brent Brewer said. "We can tell he loves it. When the game's on the line it comes down to who's better on special teams."

Brewer said Jones seems especially intent on fine-tuning the punt-coverage and punt-return units.

"He shows us different fronts on the punt-return team," the player said, "and gives us every scenario we can be put in during a game."

Some coaches fill their special-teams units with third-teamers and walk-ons who won't see the field any other way. Not Jones. He somehow has instilled his passion for special teams into his players. Even the starters are eager to contribute in the kicking game.

"Being on special teams here is a privilege," said senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood, who toils for the field goal, field-goal block and punt safe units. "It's not something where you say, ‘Oh, God, I have to do special teams.' For him to trust you enough to put you out there is big. I wish I could do more special teams."

Like Brewer, Hood says special teams is being heavily emphasized this preseason.

"It is," Hood said. "I think we're one of the few teams that do every special teams (segment) every day. Coach Jones just has this vision that one game is going to come down to a field goal at the end of the game, so he wants to work on it every day – to put the kickers in that situation, to put the rushers in that situation to try and block a kick like that. It's the same thing with punts and stuff. That's his baby."

When asked how Jones conveys his sense of urgency toward special teams to the players, Hood laughed.

"You've met him, haven't you? That's how he does it," the player replied. "When he brings his intensity if you don't meet his intensity you get called out and booted off special teams."

Junior return specialist Devrin Young believes Jones' emphasis on the kicking game will have a significant impact on Tennessee's record this fall.

"Special teams makes or breaks at least three or four games a year," Young said. "Special teams is a real important part of the game, so we take a big approach to it."

Senior center James Stone says the Vols fully understand that Jones harps on special-teams play because of its potential impact on the won-lost record.

"I could really sense it because it's a phase of the game that we really have to win in order to be successful," Stone said. "The coaches put a lot of emphasis on special teams and put a lot of emphasis on guys having important roles on special teams."

Stone sensed from the first workout last spring that this staff is determined to field championship-caliber special-teams units.

"There was just more reps," he recalled. "There was more emphasis in every practice. Every practice we were doing special teams, and it was a lot of full-contact reps of special teams."

That's a critical point. Practicing kick returns and kick coverage at less than full-speed and full-contact is like driving 60 miles per hour on a deserted highway in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. You can't simulate a full-speed, full-contact activity in a half-speed, no-contact practice run. When Young returned a punt at less than full speed in a recent practice drill Jones immediately ordered him to the sidelines and replaced him with freshman Cameron Sutton.

Jones says his obsession with the kicking game is no recent development. He insists he was just as demanding during his three years as head man at Central Michigan and his three years at Cincinnati.

"We've always repped it (vigorously) because everywhere we've been we haven't been the most talented football teams," Jones said. "The momentum of a game can change (with one play), and it usually occurs with special teams."

Tennessee fans are acutely aware of this. The Vols' 5-7 record in 2012 could be traced in part to mediocre play on special teams. The Big Orange ranked 11th among the 14 SEC teams in kickoff returns (20.5 yards), 10th in net punting (37.2 yards) and 12th in PAT conversions (90.7 percent).

How much better will Tennessee's special teams be in 2013? That remains to be seen. Based on what he has witnessed in practice, however, Brewer is willing to venture a guess:

"I think we'll be about 10 times better."

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