Don’t believe it? Ask Steve Spurrier.
His heavily favored South Carolina Gamecocks rolled into Nashville on Sept. 20 expecting an easy win, just as the Vols do heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale. Darrius Sims foiled those plans by returning the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, helping the Commodores bolt to a 14-0 lead. To prove it was no fluke, he returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards for another touchdown, enabling Vandy to give Spurrier an awful scare before bowing 48-34.
Even with opponents scheming to contain him, Sims is averaging 25.5 yards per kickoff return. That’s tops among SEC players with at least 20 runbacks. Naturally, Tennessee’s special-teams coach is acutely aware of the threat Sims poses Saturday at Dudley Field.
“I remember watching two touchdowns against South Carolina earlier this year,” Mark Elder told InsideTennessee. “The kid’s dynamic, extremely explosive. He’s a definite playmaker in the return game, and somebody we’re obviously well aware of. We’ve got to contain him.”
That’s especially true on the opening kickoff. The first touchdown return against South Carolina gave Vandy’s players and fans a boost that lasted the entire game, while putting the Gamecocks on their heels.
“Any time you start off a game with an explosive play, that can take some wind out of the sails, as far as the momentum and the excitement of the game,” Elder said. “We’re aware that he’s an explosive guy, a guy that is very dangerous with the ball in his hands. We’re aware, and we’re ready to have a big battle this weekend.”
Of course, the Vols were aware of Sims’ return skills last fall but that didn’t stop him from breaking a 71-yard kickoff runback at Neyland Stadium that helped Vanderbilt prevail 14-10. That’s why Tennessee freshman Aaron Medley must do an exceptional job of angling his kickoffs in Saturday’s rematch.
“Placement is always huge because the coverage is expecting the ball to be in a certain area, so if you converge on an area and the ball is 20 yards in a different direction, you’re out of place,” Elder said. “That’s huge. Aaron has got to do a great job this weekend of putting the ball in the spot we want based on what kick we have called. Then we have to go down the field, avoid blocks and get him (Sims) on the ground.”
Medley plans to do his part in keeping Sims hemmed in on Saturday. The Vol rookie believes he has significantly improved his directional kicking throughout the fall.
“I’ve come a long way I think,” he told InsideTennessee. “I feel like I’m coming through the ball a little more. I’ve got some things to correct from last game obviously (when he kicked one out of bounds versus Missouri) but we’ll get it done.”
Kick placement is a bold new concept for Medley, who was more intent on booming kicks than directing them during his days at Marshall County High School in Lewisburg.
“In high school we just put the ball down the middle and kicked,” he recalled with a smile. “They trusted me a lot. I think I only had maybe six that didn’t go in the end zone last year. This year I’m just trying to place it in the right spots and give our team the best opportunity.”
Elder acknowledges Medley’s progress in directional kicking, noting: “He’s been doing well. He’s been getting better throughout the year. There’s the inconsistent one here or there. You’d like to say it’s 100 percent – it hasn’t been – but he has progressed throughout the year in terms of ball placement.”
Medley’s solid work in this area has helped Tennessee improve dramatically in kickoff coverage from 2013 to 2014.The Vols were horrible covering kickoffs last fall, allowing a whopping 25.4 yards per return. This year’s team has shaved nearly six yards off of that average, checking in at 19.6 per return. Medley isn’t the only reason for the progress, however.
“The personnel we have running down the field in coverage is performing better,” Elder said. “The guys are faster, they’re avoiding blocks better and they’re tackling better. Those things are clearly happening at a higher rate. You’re seeing that as a big thing, and guys are making plays.”
For the second year in a row, the star of Tennessee’s kick-coverage unit is a true freshman. Last fall it was Jalen Reeves-Maybin. This year it is Cortez McDowell. Seven of his team-high 11 special-teams tackles have come covering kickoffs.
“Cortez is going a great job,” Elder said. “He’s a good football player. I got asked a number of times last year: ‘What is it that makes Jalen Reeves-Maybin so good in coverage?’ He’s a good football player.”
Interestingly enough, McDowell is making the switch from safety to linebacker – the same switch that Maybin was making this time last year. Both needed time to grasp the intricacies of the new position but each made an immediate splash in kick coverage, where the learning curve is not so steep.
“Jalen was transitioning last year from one position to another, and the transition may have slowed him down in that area,” Elder said. “But in special teams you learn your assignment, you run down the field and you do it at a fast rate. Good football players can perform in those situations. There are fewer assignments and less learning. With a guy like Jalen or Cortez, you give ‘em an assignment, then let ‘em run down the field and make plays.”
Tennessee coaches are hoping Maybin and McDowell make some plays on Darrius Sims Saturday afternoon in Nashville. He’s probably Vanderbilt’s most dangerous weapon.
Ask Steve Spurrier.