Tennessee's 16-7 setback to Florida can be summed up in two of General Robert R. Neyland's surviving seven maxims: No. 1: "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win," and No. 6: "Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made."
For all the lip service given these time-honored maxims handed down by the man who established Tennessee football as national power, the Vols have had hardly pressed the kicking game in recent years. Other than the punting of Dustin Colquitt, UT's kicking game has been quite ordinary in every other way over the first five years of the new millennium. From kick coverage, to kick returns, to the place-kicking game, the Vols have been inferior to their opponents.
The lone regular season loss in 2001 to Georgia was the direct result of poor special teams play as a long punt return for a UGA touchdown and a short Tennessee kickoff after going ahead in the final minute of the game proved to be the most important plays of the Bulldogs' upset win at Neyland Stadium.
Saturday in Gainesville, it was Jonathan Hefney's muffed punt and Britton Colquitt's misfire on a fake punt attempt that swung the momentum to the Gators. There was also a blocked field goal that cost UT a chance to assume its only lead of the game, not to mention a nine-yard punt by Colquitt.
Coach Phillip Fulmer took responsibility for the botched pass Colquitt attempted saying it was a matter of miscommunication with a freshman punter who didn't realize he wasn't supposed to attempt a fake unless the Vols were outside their own 35. Noble though it is that Fulmer took the heat for the play, it still raises a crucial question. What else does Colquitt have to know when he drops back to punt? If that's not the only thing it has to be the first thing. There's not even a snap count to remember. Besides even Colquitt is only a technically a freshman, he's been in the program going on three seasons. Shouldn't something that important be cleared up by now? Wouldn't somebody maybe remind him before he goes in to punt at that stage of a monumental contest?
On the blocked field goal, the ball was reportedly snapped before the kicker was ready. That's not the type of mental error one would expect from a program that prides itself on its kicking game. Also James Wilhoit, who is a redshirt junior and former high school All-American, knocked one of his two kickoffs in the game out of bounds, setting Florida up at its own 35. Even if the Gator hadn't gained a yard they would have, presumably, been in position to fake a punt.
The muffed punt by Hefney was both a physical and mental error. First, he should have made the fair catch on what was a short punt. Secondly, he took his eyes off the ball at the last instant to see a Gator gunner bearing down on him.
Kickoff returns continue to be problematical for a UT team that rarely brings the ball past the 20 yard-line. To consistently fail in this department the Vols are either not forming an effective wedge or the return men are not hitting the wedge with authority. One of Inky Johnson's meandering returns was enough to convince observers that Corey Larkins' had been awarded a sixth year of eligibility.
Finally, one has to wonder how Tennessee manages to make so many mental errors in the kicking game which is the least demanding aspect of football from a cerebral standpoint.
The lone positive of UT's performance in the kicking game was coverage. The effort by Ryan Karl and James Turner on the second half kickoff was outstanding. It's the type of full-throttle play needed to lift the Vols kicking game to the high standards they have enjoyed throughout the 20th Century.
Combined with a strong defense it's also a surefire cure for a team that is struggling to find itself on offense, plus it would give Tennessee a chance to win close games, which there figure to be plenty even if the Vols figure out a way to move the football and put points on the board.