Many unhappy returns

Jonathan Hefney began the 2005 season as Tennessee's punt return specialist. After fumbling a couple of punts and averaging just 5.8 yards per runback, however, he surrendered the job.

Freshman Lucas Taylor assumed the punt-return duties at this point. After muffing a punt and fumbling a kickoff, however, he lost the job back to Hefney midway through last Saturday's loss at Notre Dame.

Punt and kickoff returns have been an ongoing problem for Tennessee this year, forcing head coach Phillip Fulmer to make changes throughout the course of the season. Freshman Demetrice Morley will return kickoffs and Hefney will be back handling punts Saturday against Memphis.

Taylor, who can be electrifying with the ball in his hands, handled both the punt and kickoff runback chores for Games 3 through 8. His best game came against Alabama, when he averaged 7.8 yards on four punt returns and 24.7 on three kickoff returns. For the year he's averaging 6.2 yards on punts and 21.0 on kickoffs – both decent marks – but his problem with ball security ultimately cost him both jobs.

"The biggest thing is, if we don't make a yard, we've got to catch it clean," Fulmer said. "It seems like we're really good for a couple of weeks, then all of a sudden, the Football Gods are mad or something. We're really good at catching it in practice."

At various times this fall Tennessee's kickoff return contenders included Inquoris Johnson (5 for a 14.4-yard average), Chris Hannon (3 for 14.0), Arian Foster (2 for 18.5), David Yancey (2 for 20.0) and Robert Meachem (2 for 20.5). Morley returned the last two kickoffs vs. Notre Dame and did fairly well, picking up 45 yards for a 22.5-yard average.

"Morley looked pretty good hitting it up in there," Fulmer said.

One of the keys last weekend was Irish return specialist Tom Zbikowski. He lugged one Vol punt 78 yards for a touchdown and returned another 26 yards to set up a crucial field goal. Fulmer would love to see that kind of production from UT's return game.

"We need something exciting to happen on one of those teams," the coach said. "It's like we're sitting there waiting for something bad to happen, and that's not what you want. You want good things to happen."

Fulmer thought one of those "good things" was going to happen against Notre Dame. Hefney fielded a second-quarter punt and made the first man miss. Had he gotten by the second man, he would've been off to the races.

"We had the prettiest wall set up you've ever seen," Fulmer said. "If we just get by one more man, he gets to the wall and we've got a long touchdown. It's frustrating."

Tennessee has incurred a glut of holding and illegal-block-in-the-back penalties on returns this fall. Fortunately, the Vol entrusted with blocking the last man between Hefney and the wall last week realized he had a bad angle and pulled off the block. Otherwise, UT would've been called for yet another penalty.

"The kid did a great job pulling off from a clip," Fulmer said, wistfully adding: "If he'd gotten that block we would've been to the wall. But that's football."


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