Tennessee Can Be A Special Team

There are a couple of serious drawbacks to having a formal education in history and journalism: (1) Unless you hit the lottery you'll never be rich. (2) It's difficult to speculate on the future without referencing the past.

That's particularly true when your area of expertise is athletics which offer so many uniform parallels in a context of relativity given that each sport has a season and statistical results.

With that qualification out of the way, let's join Sherman and Mr. Peabody in the Way Back Machine and travel to 1982 in search of answers regarding the 2004 Tennessee football campaign.

Why 1982 you might ask? Well, it was something of a low ebb for UT football and many questions were being posed about the program's long-term prospectus. Johnny Majors was in the sixth year of a rebuilding project that had netted a 29-27-1 record which was the worst five-year span in Tennessee's proud gridiron history. The Vols hadn't finished a season ranked in the nation's top 20 in eight years and hadn't beaten arch rival Alabama in 11 years.

Optimism wasn't particularly high for the 1982 squad which had an untested quarterback in sophomore Allan Cockrell and glaring deficiencies on both sides of the football. A season opening 25-24 loss at home to Duke did nothing to improve fan outlook. An SEC opening 24-14 loss at Auburn two weeks later sunk any remaining hopes for a major turnaround by UT. Add season ending losses at Vanderbilt and to Iowa in the Peach Bowl to the stumbling start and it would be easy to write off the 1982 campaign as a total loss. If you think a Peach Bowl loss is depressing now, imagine what it was like coming on the heels of a loss to Vanderbilt.

But that's where you'd be wrong because between the bad beginning and unfortunate closing act, the Vols righted themselves to go 5-1-1 including a 24-24 tie against LSU in Baton Rogue and a dramatic 35-28 win over Alabama in Knoxville. UT also captured SEC wins over Mississippi and Kentucky as well as non conference victories over Washington State and Memphis State with the only loss coming to Georgia Tech the week after Tennessee's upset over Alabama.

The Vols managed to cobble together a winning record (6-5-1) that year, but it's the way they did it that made 1982 special and significant to Tennessee's upcoming football campaign. You see, UT had some great players on the ‘82 team including such notables as Reggie White, Willie Gault, Bill Bates and Mike "Stop" Cofer who all went on to earn All-Pro status and lengthy NFL careers, but on balance Tennessee's team was simply put — terrible.

How terrible was it? The Vols gave up a school record 4,573 yards on defense in 1982 — an infamous mark that stands to this day. An equal opportunity sieve, UT's defense surrendered 2,234 yards passing and 2,339 yards rushing. It allowed Ole Miss quarterback Kent Austin to complete 37 passes and repeated the performance two weeks later against Vanderbilt's Whit Taylor who lit up the Vols for 391 passing yards in a driving rain.

The Vols were out gained by nearly 1,000 yards in total offense and UT QBs threw 15 interceptions vs. 12 touchdowns. Chuck Coleman led Tennessee's ground game with only 600 yards rushing. The defense recorded only 16 sacks and only broke up 11 passes in as many games. Compare that to the 2001 UT team that had 34 sacks and broke up 72 passes.

In light of such disparity it might seem remarkable that the Vols were able to finish the season on the plus side. So how did they do it? Succinctly stated: super special teams.

That season punter Jimmy Colquitt and place kicker Fuad Reveiz combined to post the greatest individual seasons in the history of a school famous for its kicking game. Colquitt averaged an incredible 46.9 yards per punt while Reviez made 27-of-31 field goal attempts, including 60 yards vs. Georgia Tech, 55 yards vs. Kentucky, 54 and 52 yards vs. Memphis State, 52 yards vs. Iowa State and a last minute game tying 52-yard field goal at LSU. In that same win over the Tigers, Colquitt set a school record by averaging 53 yards on seven punts. No Tennessee punter before or since has ever enjoyed such success in a game.

UT's special teams performance was complete that night in Baton Rogue with Willie Gault's memorable 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. A senior that season Gault averaged 16.7 yards per return against opponents who were well aware of his speed and went to great lengths to avoid him. That added up to a lot of hidden yards due to short punts and kicks which provided the Vols with great field position and helped compensate for their problems on offense and defense.

Tennessee is certainly much stronger across the board now than it was in 1982 while punter Dustin Colquitt and place kicker James Wilhoit have the potential to be as good as any specialists in the nation. If the Vols dynamic kicking duo comes through and UT's front seven proves as formidable as it looks on paper, Tennessee can be successful with an offense that is merely balanced and has good ball security. That takes much of the pressure off of the yet unestablished quarterback position and places it on the defense and special teams.

The Vols still need to reenergize the return game and there are several highly qualified candidates to do just that. In summary: you don't have to have an explosive offense to be a successful team and there's nothing more exciting than winning.

Despite the nagging doubts about the man behind the center, history suggests you can win by putting your best feet forward.

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