Return game is abysmal

For a team loaded with big-play receivers, it's hard to understand how Tennessee's kickoff and punt return units can be so utterly ineffective.For a team loaded with big-play receivers, it's hard to understand how Tennessee's kickoff and punt return units can be so utterly ineffective.

Corey Larkins averaged a paltry 10.7 yards in Saturday's game with Notre Dame, returning three kickoffs for a mere 32 total yards. An off night? Not really. Larkins' season's average is a modest 17.2 yards per runback. As a team, UT's kickoff return average is a nondescript 18.3 yards. By comparison, Vol foes average 19.2 yards per return.

Tennessee averages 6.9 yards per punt return, another mediocre figure. Derrick Tinsley was averaging a solid 9.9 yards per runback but he's out for the year after suffering a fractured leg against Notre Dame. Jonathan Hefney showed promise in September but a muffed punt at midseason caused him to fall from grace. He's been used sporadically ever since, averaging a disappointing 5.9 yards per return.

Questioned about the return game following the loss to Notre Dame, head coach Phillip Fulmer replied: ''Our punt return has been OK at times, even though it's not what we want it to be. Our kickoff return is not very good. We'll keep looking at that. That's obviously something we're not very pleased with right now. We'll continue to look at it and see what we need to change.''

Larkins seems tentative. Instead of using his great speed to zoom upfield, then veer to daylight, he appears to hesitate -- as if he's waiting to be buried under -- which he usually is after a few half-speed steps.

Free advice: Fourth-string tailback David Yancey showed a knack for weaving his way through traffic in spring practice and on his 23-yard TD run vs. South Carolina. That's basically what a return man does ... weave his way through traffic. Why not give Yancey a shot? If he isn't the answer, there's always speedy wideouts like Bret Smith, Robert Meachem and Chris Hannon.

Bottom line: Minus its top two quarterbacks -- Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer -- Tennessee desperately needs some big plays from special teams in the weeks ahead. Given how abysmal the return game has been, almost any change at this point would be an improvement.


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