Kicking game needs work

Special-teams play is one-third of football – along with offense and defense – and the Tennessee Vols had better keep that in mind throughout the 2006 season. With a bunch of new aides on offense and a bunch of new starters on defense, the Big Orange may need more help from special teams than usual.

That could be a pipe dream, however, since Tennessee's special-teams play in 2005 barely qualified as mediocre.

The Vols were fifth among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in punt returns (8.4 yards per runback) and eighth in kickoff returns (19.8 yards per runback). They were seventh in net punting (33.5 yards) and fourth in field goal percentage (14 of 19 for 73.7). They were 10th in punt coverage, allowing opponents to average 5.6 yards per runback.

The only two special-teams areas in which Tennessee distinguished itself in 2005 was kicking conversions and covering kickoffs. James Wilhoit nailed 100 percent of his 21 extra-point attempts, helping the Vols tie for first place among SEC teams in that category. Meanwhile, the coverage unit averaged 44.3 net yards on kickoffs. In other words, if UT kicked from the 35-yard line, the average return would be to the 21-yard line.

How much progress Tennessee can make in terms of special-teams play for 2006 is debatable. Wilhoit returns for his senior year as the placement specialist, so the field-goal and extra-point percentages should be strong again. His booming kickoffs should ensure another year of quality kick coverage, as well.

Beyond that, however, there are some question marks. Britton Colquitt averaged 41.2 yards per punt as a freshman last fall but must improve his hang time and directional kicking, so his punts will be easier to cover.

As for the shortcomings in the return game, those have been perplexing Volunteer fans for several years. Tennessee's roster routinely is filled with guys who were heralded high school tailbacks, receivers and cornerbacks, yet the Vols seem incapable of finding anyone dynamic enough to change field position by breaking an occasional punt return or kickoff return.

Defensive back Jonathan Hefney showed great promise as a punt return specialist early in 2004 but eventually lost the job due to fumbling problems. He came on late last fall to reclaim the job, however, and finished with an 11.5 yards-per-return average. He's backed by Lucas Taylor, a reserve receiver who averaged just 6.2 yards on 13 returns last year.

Taylor is the odds-on favorite to handle the kickoff return chores. Fielding 19 kickoffs last fall, he averaged 22.5 yards per runback with a long of 47. He's a 5-10, 168-pounder with good speed and electrifying moves.

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