Special teams emphasis

Poor special teams play cost Tennessee dearly in last year's losses to Florida, Georgia and Notre Dame. Even when Vol special teams weren't losing games, though, they rarely accomplished anything to help win games.

Tennessee's fans noticed. So did Tennessee's head coach. That's why he promises to place a greater emphasis on special-teams play as the Vols prepare for the 2006 season.

"We had a long meeting (Friday night) about special teams and what a difference those can make," Phillip Fulmer said on Saturday.

Although Tennessee gave up punt return touchdowns vs. Georgia and Notre Dame last fall, the coverage units performed fairly well as a rule. The problem was the return units. They were mediocre. Tennessee never seemed to pop a long return that would change field position, much less change the score.

As Fulmer noted: "Getting a great player in the open field on a punt return with people in front of him to block … you don't get that – you just don't get that – on normal (scrimmage) plays."

Teams such as Virginia Tech and Georgia proved in recent years that long returns and blocked kicks can win a bunch of games. Even pinning an opponent inside its 5-yard line with a well-covered punt can be a game-changing play. Tennessee hasn't made many of these plays the past few years, however.

"Those will make a big difference in the ball games that are very, very close," Fulmer conceded, "and in this league they're all very, very close."

The head man said the Vols have "gone back to (handling) special teams more as a staff. The coordinators are in charge, with me obviously very involved. We've divvied it up and each coach is going to be the expert of that particular field."

In addition, Fulmer says he and his staffers spent the past few months studying pro and college teams who field the best special teams in hopes of getting some pointers.

"We've watched tons of film – NFL and college film," he said. "We studied teams that were top ranked consistently over the last several years in a number of areas."

Like offense and defense, the kicking game is one-third of football. Tennessee has done little productive in this vital area of the game in recent years but Fulmer vows this year will be different.

"I know we're going to have a much more aggressive attitude about how we play special teams – whether it be a punt return, a punt block, a kickoff return," he said. "We're going to be much more detailed and thorough.

"It's not that we didn't spend time before but we're going to spend QUALITY time getting better at those kind of things."

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