Rogers to return punts

Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer normally sticks with proven players over unproven players ... but not always. The Vol head man says sophomore Austin Rogers -- not junior Jonathan Hefney -- will handle punt returns in Saturday's season opener against California.

Hefney handled the punt-return duties in 2004 and 2005, compiling a 7.3-yard average on 36 career runbacks. That's 35 more than Rogers, who returned one punt for minus-3 yards against South Carolina as a true freshman last fall. He also had one fair catch in that game.

Fulmer said the fact Hefney will be playing every down at free safety influenced his decision. So did the fact Rogers, a backup receiver, returned a punt 60 yards in the Vols' second preseason scrimmage and had another big return in last Saturday's kicking scrimmage. Moreover, Rogers has exhibited sure hands, whereas Hefney has shown some fumbling problems in the past.

Asked if he is concerned about how an inexperienced guy like Austin Rogers will handle such a pressure-packed duty in a critical opener against a top-10 foe, Fulmer chuckled.

"Yeah. That's what opening games are about," he said. "But I don't have any reservations. I've seen him catch a lot of balls in practice and everything."

Fielding punts in front of 100 fans attending a scrimmage is one thing. Fielding punts in front of 107,000 fans and a national TV audience is something else. Still, Fulmer says he has complete confidence in Rogers, a 6-2, 185-pounder from Nashville.

"You live in your hopes and not your fears, as far as I'm concerned," the head man said. "I think he'll do a great job for us.

"In our kicking scrimmage he had a very, very nice punt return. I think he'll handle it fine. He handled a couple last year, and did a good job with it."

Fulmer said sophomores Lucas Taylor and Demetrice Morley will get the first shot on kickoff return duties.

In other depth-chart news:

- Brad Cottam (6-8, 260) has pulled into a virtual tie with fellow junior Chris Brown (6-3, 240) for the first-team tight end job.

- LaMarcus Coker, David Yancey and Ja'Kouri Williams are bracketed No. 3 at tailback behind first-teamer Arian Foster and backup Montario Hardesty.

- Sophomore Jerod Mayo (6-2, 230) is listed No. 1 at weakside linebacker ahead of redshirt freshman Rico McCoy (6-1, 215).

- Sophomore Ellix Wilson is listed No. 2 at both strongside linebacker (behind Ryan Karl) and middle linebacker (behind Marvin Mitchell).

- Only two true freshmen are listed on the Game 1 depth chart. They are Jacques McClendon (No. 2 at right guard behind Anthony Parker) and Dorian Davis (No. 3 at weakside linebacker behind Mayo and McCoy). Receiver Quintin Hancock, nursing a pulled hamstring, will play if he's healthy. Offensive tackle Ramone Johnson, defensive end Chase Nelson and linebacker LaMarcus Thompson also could see action, based on Fulmer's comments last week.

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