Special teams' play

Two questions come up whenever Tennessee football fans discuss the Vols' special teams' play:

1. Will it be better?

2. Could it be worse?

Head coach Phillip Fulmer was asked question No. 1 this week. He revamped UT's coaching assignments on special teams during the offseason, so inquiring minds are wondering if the changes are having an impact.

"You really don't know those things until you get to go live bullets," Fulmer said. "I know Coach (John) Chavis has done a great job with the punt-block team because we've gone live with that. Coach (Kurt) Roper and Steve (Caldwell) are the primary guys on punt protection, and we're game-ready there because we've gone live there."

Fulmer isn't sure where the kickoff coverage and kickoff return teams stand because they've gotten very little full-speed work this spring.

"We had two live kickoff returns in the scrimmage the other day, and they were OK," the head man said. "It wasn't really against a great coverage team."

Obviously. James Wilhoit's first kickoff was a blooper that was caught at the 17-yard line by up-man Ryan Karl (a linebacker) and returned 31 yards to the 48-yard line. The other kickoff was fielded by Inky Johnson eight yards deep in the end zone. He found a crease, then cut to the west sidelines. Ellix Wilson laid out Wilhoit with a wicked block near midfield, and Johnson coasted home from there to complete a 108-yard return.

Since reporters get to watch scrimmages but not practices, there's no way to know how the special teams' play looks in practice except to ask the head man.

"I think we're making progress in some areas," Fulmer said, "and we've got a ways to go in some areas."

The coach said UT will cover kickoffs and punts at full speed in Saturday's Orange & White Game but added a qualifier.

"We'll have them," he said, "but it'll be the walk-ons and third-teamers doing it primarily."


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