Butch Jones talks often about how he doesn't want his team to "dibble and dabble" in a bunch of different areas, choosing instead to work toward owning certain areas of the game to create a team identity.
When it comes to Tennessee in 2015, nothing more appropriately proves that than Jones' return teams. The Vols haven't just been good at returning kicks, punts and booting the ball away — they've been downright dominant. Tennessee ranks as the best kickoff return team in the nation, averaging 33.41 yards per game and notching three touchdowns behind All-American return specialist Evan Berry. On punt returns, cornerback Cam Sutton made his name known as more than just a lockdown defensive back. guiding the Vols to become the No. 2 punt return team in the NCAA averaging 47.2 yards per game and 18.26 per punt return.
"We put a lot of emphasis on it, but it's a way to impact games, a way to change field position, and we knew starting the season that special teams would help to impact the game for us being young in a number of areas," Jones said. "(I'm) proud of our players the way the've bought in, but every week is a new challenge, and I think this will be the biggest challenge to date in terms of special teams from Northwestern."
The Wildcats have been solid at stopping teams in the return game but have been by no means elite. Northwestern stands as the 56th-best team at stopping opposing teams on kickoffs, giving up 62 yards per game but allowing just one touchdown on the season. The punt return defense, however, has been one of the best in the country, allowing just 2.2 yards per return without giving up a score.
"When I look at our opponent, not just now but every week, I'll star with their special teams tape," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I give my big special teams talk in training camp. Butch alluded to it earlier, but the character of a team is revealed in their special teams."
Jones sees a lot of similarities in his own team when putting on the tape of the Wildcats' fundamentally sound special teams unit that rarely draws a flag or gives up an explosive play.
"You look at both programs and, again, a lot of similarities and philosophies, and a lot of times it starts with special teams," he said. "Special teams is a way to impact the game. It's a way to impact field position. They've been outstanding on special teams as well."
The film Fitzgerald has studied on the Vols have been reptitive, and according to Pat Fitzgerald, that's a good thing. Tennessee never really tries to outscheme its opponents in the special teams game. Instead, the Vols simply line up and dare you to stop them.
"From the standpoint of watching Tennessee, you know, this is a compliment: They have tendencies," Fitzgerald said. "We'll see some teams that we both play that they're flavor-of-the-week special teams. They have no tendencies, and you know you're going to play pretty well against them because I doubt thir kids know what they're doing because their coaches are drawing it up on napkins throughout the week. When you watch probably our two teams, it's probably pretty boring becasue we do what we do and we execute, andt hey're fundamentally sound and the kids play their tail off. It's going to be critically important."