Who'll get their kicks?

Special-teams play could be the difference in tonight's Tennessee-Florida football game at Neyland Stadium. If so, the Vols have one consolation: Their play in the kicking game can't be much worse than it was in last year's game.

In case you've forgotten, here's a brief history lesson:

First, James Wilhoit had a field goal blocked. Then Jonathan Hefney fumbled a punt that Florida recovered and converted into a field goal. An incomplete pass by Britton Colquitt off a fake punt set up another Gator field goal. An eight-yard punt by Colquitt enabled Florida to kick yet another field goal. Those three field goals provided the winning margin as Florida won 16-7.

So, is Tennessee's special-teams play better in 2006? Yes and no.

The punting and kicking have been very good. The punt coverage has been solid. The kickoff coverage has been mediocre. The punt returns have been so-so and the kickoff returns abysmal.

Colquitt has punted five times for a 41.4-yard average with two kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. Wilhoit has made all nine conversion kicks and nailed his only field goal try, a 35-yarder. He has kicked off well, too. He put three of six kickoffs into the end zone in the opener vs.California, with two downed for touchbacks. He booted four of six kicks into the end zone in Game 2 vs. Air Force, with three resulting in touchbacks.

The Vols are allowing just 5.3 yards on punt returns but they're surrendering 21.8 yards on kickoff returns.

Tennessee has returned three punts for a modest 7.0 average but its kickoff runbacks have been horrendous. The Vols have returned four kickoffs for a putrid 9.5-yard average but even that doesn't begin to capture how inept the kick return team has been. Consider their misadventures last weekend vs. Air Force:

- Kickoff No. 1: Demetrice Morley fields it three yards deep in the end zone, ignores Lucas Taylor's "stop" sign and is swarmed under at the Vol 13-yard line.

- Kickoff No. 2: Up man Chris Brown fair catches a bloop kick at the 26-yard line.

- Kickoff No. 3: Morley slips down at his 1-yard line while fielding the ball.

- Kickoff No. 4: Taylor has a bloop kickoff bound off his shoulder pads, squirt nine yards downfield and out of bounds at the 27-yard line. He is credited with a nine-yard return.

- Kickoff No. 5: An on-sides kick bounces off Inquoris Johnson's shoulder pads and is recovered by Air Force.

- Kickoff No. 6: Another on-sides kick is untouched by Tennessee and recovered by Air Force. Fortunately for the Vols, the Falcons were ruled off-sides and forced to kick again.

- Kickoff No. 7: Air Force tries another on-sides kick but this one is recovered by Tennessee's Jayson Swain.

Head coach Phillip Fulmer was not amused by UT's problems handling on-sides kicks, although he gave some credit to Air Force's kicker on one of them.

"The second one was about as perfect as you'll ever kick," Fulmer said. "The first one we didn't do very good. In my time here we've had a good number of those kicked at us and we'd never failed to field one of them."

On a positive note, Tennessee's special-teams problems in Game 2 could prove beneficial in Game 3. The kicking game was so inept vs. Air Force that the Vols worked extra on special teams in preparation for Florida.

"It's always a concern to make sure you're covering all your bases the best that you can," Fulmer said. "Obviously, we brought a kickoff out we shouldn't have brought out. And we slipped and fell at the 1. That's not really a personnel or a coaching thing.

"On the kickoff returns, we've made some adjustments in personnel," he added. "We continue to work in the right direction. We're definitely addressing all of those things."


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