Return game still 'unsettled'

Vol football coach Phillip Fulmer won't celebrate his 55th birthday until next Thursday (Sept. 1) but he's already looking forward to many happy returns. He just doesn't know who'll be making them.

One of the hottest topics in Big Orange Country these days is: Who'll return punts and kickoffs? The answer to the first part of that question appears set. The answer to the second part is anyone's guess.

Following Tuesday night's scrimmage Fulmer described the return jobs as "unsettled," although he subsequently noted that "Jonathan Hefney probably will handle punts."

Hefney has the hands, explosiveness, vision and running skills to be outstanding in that role. Yet, he averaged a modest 5.0 yards on punt returns and a so-so 18.2 yards on kickoff returns as a freshman last fall.

Fulmer would like to use Hefney on kickoff returns again this year but figures returning punts AND kickoffs might be a little too taxing for a guy projected to be the team's starting free safety.

"He would be fine on that (kickoffs) but Hefney's going to be playing a very physical position for a lot of snaps," Fulmer said. "We've still got to find that right guy."

The fact the Vols haven't found "that right guy" can't be blamed on a lack of candidates. At various times this preseason they've looked at wideouts Chris Hannon, Robert Meachem and Lucas Taylor, running backs Gerald Riggs, LaMarcus Coker, Montario Hardesty and David Yancey, defensive backs Hefney, Jonathan Wade, Inky Johnson, Demetrice Morley and Marsalous Johnson.

Yet another return "wannabe" got an audition Tuesday night. Freshman wide receiver Austin Rogers fielded some punts in pre-game warmups and also handled one (a fair catch) during the scrimmage. Taylor and Yancey also fielded a punt each. The deep men on kickoffs were Meachem, Hannon and Hefney.

Despite 4.3 speed over 40 yards, Hannon seems the least likely return candidate of the bunch. At 6-feet-3 with a thin frame and a long stride, he appears to lack the shiftiness and tackle-breaking abilities of the other contenders. Still, Fulmer likes what he has seen of Hannon.

"He's catching the ball well, and he wants to do it," the coach said. "But we haven't seen him really do it live (in full-speed drills), so that's almost one we'll have to go in and see. "

Ideally, Fulmer would like to have one of Riggs' backups handle the kick return duties.

"It really should be your second-team tailback or your third-team tailback," the coach said. "That (kickoff return) is kind of like a (scrimmage) run. A punt's a different kind of a thing."

Riggs averaged 18.4 yards on five kickoff returns last season but was splitting time at tailback with Ced Houston. This year Riggs projects to be a workhorse, so you don't want to cut into his carries by burdening him with return duties, as well.

"Riggs did better last year than most," Fulmer conceded. "But I don't think it'll be him (this year). We'll settle on it. We'll find somebody."

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