Although Tennessee has had all season to fix the problem, progress has been minimal. Against Kentucky in Game 11, the Vols' kickoff returns were as follows:
• 21 yards to the 22
• 19 yards to the 22
• 20 yards to the 20
• 8 yards to the 11
• 17 yards to the 17
Tennessee's average return against UK was 17 yards and its average starting field position was the 18-yard line. In other words, the Vols would've been better served to let each kickoff bound through the end zone. At least that woud've enabled them to start each possession at the 20-yard line.
I asked Phil Fulmer earlier this week why the return game has been so unproductive and how big a lift it would be to get some quality returns in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn this Saturday evening.
Fulmer noted that returning the ball to the 30, instead of the 20, is like getting an additional first down. Then he smugly added: ''If we'd get it OUTSIDE the 30, we'd all go celebrate somewhere.''
When I asked what he is doing to upgrade kickoff returns, the head man replied: ''We're still in the process of talking about what we want to do. If you put all your veterans on there, by the fourth quarter you're going to be out of gas. One of the problems is we've had a number of linebackers and defensive backs that aren't with us right now. Those are the guys that are usually the best on special teams -- big, athletic guys or fast, athletic guys.''
That argument has some validity. Tennessee lost linebacker Marvin Mitchell and cornerback Antwan Stewart to preseason knee injuries. Linebacker Kevin Simon fell to a Game 2 knee injury and safety Brandon Johnson was lost to a suspension following Game 6. Another of Tennessee's better special team's performers, wideout Derrick Tinsley, suffered a season-ending injury in Game 8.
With Mitchell and Simon out, Omar Gaither, Kevin Burnett and Jason Mitchell have had to play more snaps at linebacker -- limiting their availability for special team's duty. With Stewart and Johnson out of action, DBs Jason Allen, Roshaun Fellows and Jonathan Hefney have been playing so many snaps that their availability for special team's work also has been curtailed a bit. This has forced Fulmer to use more second- and third-stringers than usual on special teams. Obviously, they have not done a very good job.
''The guys who have been in there,'' Fulmer conceded, ''just haven't gotten it done.''
Tennessee has used several freshmen on special teams this season but the head man said they have not responded as well as predecessors Eddie Moore, Eric Westmoreland, Tinsley and Cedric Houston did as freshmen.
Although the blocking for kickoff returns has been lousy, Tennessee's return specialists have been less than stellar, as well. Corey Larkins has a 17.2-yard average on 14 returns, Hefney an 18.2 average on five, Gerald Riggs a 17.2 average on four and David Yancey a 15.5 average on two. Riggs had one fairly decent return against Kentucky but it was nullified by a penalty.
''The one return that got the holding penalty was a really nice return,'' Fulmer noted. ''On the other one he ran into the back of a blocker. That wasn't real good.''
The head man hinted that he has some changes planned for this weekend's game against Auburn but declined to be specific.
''We're trying to manage that the best we can with the numbers we have,'' he said. ''I'm not going to tell you what all we're going to do but we're going to have a little better deal there I think.''