Every coach in the history of college football has mouthed the cliché that “Special teams is one-third of the game” and vowed to emphasize them. For most it’s lip service. An exception is Tennessee’s Butch Jones, who clearly is keeping his promise.
The Vols have made dramatic strides in the kicking game since Jones assumed the reins and named Mark Elder special-teams coordinator in 2013. Here are just a few examples:
In Derek Dooley’s final season as head man, 2012, Tennessee booted five kickoffs out of bounds in 12 games. Two seasons under Jones have seen the Vols send just one kickoff out of bounds in 25 games.
In 2012 Tennessee somehow missed five PAT kicks and finished 49 of 54, a 90.7 percent success rate. Jones’ 2013 Vols were 34 of 35 (97.1 percent) and his 2014 team was 42 of 43 (97.7 percent).
Even with the amazing Cordarrelle Patterson averaging 28.0 yards, Dooley’s 2012 squad managed a pedestrian 20.5 yards per kickoff return. Though lacking a talent of Patterson’s level, Jones’ first two Vol squads averaged 23.8 yards in 2013 and 22.7 yards in 2014.
With Michael Palardy and Matt Darr sharing the punting job, Tennessee averaged 40.7 yards per in 2012. Jones’ squads averaged 43.8 in 2013 with Palardy and 42.2 in 2014 with Darr. The net-punting marks improved, too, going from 37.2 in ’12 to 38.5 in ’13 to 38.6 in ‘14.
Dooley called for just one field-goal attempt beyond 39 yards in 2012, helping Tennessee finish with a solid 78.9 percent (15 of 19) success rate. Still, the Vols did better in both 2013 (hitting 14 of 17 for 82.3 percent) and 2014 (hitting 21 of 26 for 80.8 percent). If you count only field goals of 39 yards or less, the improvement is notable – going from 83.3 percent (15 of 18) in 2012 to 90.0 percent (9 of 10) in 2013 and to 95.0 percent (19 of 20) in 2014.
Jones recently told IT the improved special-teams play is “a combination” of great emphasis and better athletes, adding: “We always spend an inordinate amount of time on special teams. But it’s really a tribute to our players.”
He has a point. Several years ago former Vol running back Rajion Neal refused to participate on special teams. Nowadays, key contributors on both sides of the ball are pleading to contribute on special teams.
“There are individuals wanting that role, accepting that role … older players,” Jones said, noting that star linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin “all the time is wanting to be on special teams. Now (ace receiver) Marquez North wants to be on special teams. Really, that tells you a lot about the makeup and the character of your football team.”
Tennessee posted a higher punt-return average (11.9 yards) under Dooley in 2012 than it did under Jones in both 2013 (8.9 yards) and 2014 (9.7 yards). If you discount an 81-yard return by the incomparable Patterson, however, the 2012 figure would’ve been just 8.6 – lowest of the past three seasons.
The one area in which the Vols’ special-teams play got visibly worse from Dooley’s last year to Jones’ first year was kick coverage. Dooley’s 2012 squad allowed just 20.6 yards per kickoff return and 8.3 yards per punt return. The Vols slipped in both areas during Jones’ first season of 2013 – allowing 25.5 yards per kickoff return and 9.9 yards per punt return.
Underscoring his commitment to special teams, however, Jones significantly upgraded team speed with his 2014 signing class, then assigned many of the fast freshmen to the coverage units. Result: Between 2013 and 2014 the opponents’ kickoff-return average dropped from 25.5 yards to 18.8 and the punt-return average plummeted from 9.9 yards to 3.2.
“We had so much more speed and athleticism,” Jones conceded. “We still have a long ways to go to improve on those units but you could see the players on the field being difference-makers.”
They were difference-makers, all right. The Vols allowed just 71 punt-return yards in 13 games last fall. That’s the second-lowest total since Tennessee began keeping the statistic in 1950. The only Big Orange team to surrender fewer punt-return yards in a season was the 1970 squad that allowed 46 in 11 games.
Much of the credit goes to Elder, who demands that his punters focus on consistent hang time and placement rather than raw distance.
“You don’t want a guy that’s going to punt an NFL ball on one play, then punt a JV ball on the next,” Elder told InsideTennessee. “You want a consistent guy. I don’t care if the punt is 38 yards; if it’s in the right spot with good hang time that’s a good punt.
“If you punt the ball 36 yards and it’s placed in the proper spot so there’s no return, that’s a good punt. That’s better than going out and booming a 50-yarder with a 4.8 hang time, then shanking it 22 yards and out of bounds on the next. That’s not acceptable.”
|Field goals||15-19 (78.9%)||14-17 (82.3%)||21-26 (80.8%)|
|Field goals 0-39 yards||15-18 (83.3%)||9-10 (90.0%)||19-20 (95.0%)|
|PATs||49-54 (90.7%)||34-35 (97.1%)||42-43 (97.7%)|
|Punt return avg.||11.9 yards||8.9 yards||9.7 yards|
|Kickoff return avg.||20.5 yards||23.8 yards||22.7 yards|
|Punt avg.||40.7 yards||43.8 yards||42.2 yards|
|Net punt avg.||37.2 yards||38.5 yards||38.6 yards|
|Kick coverage||20.6 yards||25.5 yards||18.8 yards|
|Punt coverage||8.3 yards||9.9 yards||3.2 yards|