Punter returners have to focus on the flight of the ball which can vary widely depending on wind conditions, the spin of the ball and whether the punter is left- or right-footed. They also have to sneak a peek at the oncoming defenders and gauge whether they have a chance to make positive yards or if it would be wiser to request a fair catch. Once they catch the ball and head up field, they usually have to escape at least one defender before getting to the wall of blockers that provide a corridor to the open field.
Another difficult responsibility the punt returner has is deciding whether to field a ball on the bounce, thus avoiding giving up precious yardage on a long roll or resist the risk of attempting to control a wild carom. Sometimes the difference between what is bold and what is unwise is minuscule. Either way, the punt returner is under a lot of pressure and criticism is sure to follow an ill-advised decision.
Punt returners also have to be much more aware of their position relative to both the sideline and the end zone, whereas a kick returner only has to be aware of where he is in the end zone. The rule of thumb is not to field a punt inside the 10 yard-line, but that can be difficult to determine while chasing a driving spiral over your shoulder while running with your back to the return team.
Once a return man secures a catch, avoids the first defender, finds the wall and reaches the corner, he still has to be aware of being hit from the blind side and avoid fumbling the football. Because the timing and dispersal of defenders on punts can vary, a punt returner is vulnerable to being struck from unexpected angles with unbelievable force.
All of these factors went into formulating the criteria for ranking Tennessee1s greatest return men in team history. We considered not only return yardage, average yardage per return and touchdowns, but also decision making, hands and consistency in fielding punts and maintaining possession of the football during the return.
Back in the late 60s and early 70s when offensive talent was so prevalent on the Hill and points weren't so easy to come by, the punt return was one of the Vols most effective weapons. In recent years it has evolved into more of a secure-the-ball and avoid-high-risk process. Some of the change may be due to the reduction in practice hours which limits special team preparation. Then again maybe the Vols are just waiting for that return talent that excites the crowd and intimidates opponents.
Last season against Georgia, UT fans got a vivid reminder of how a big punt return can create a big momentum swing when Damien Gray hauled a Dustin Colquitt punt back 72 yards for a touchdown. No doubt they would like to see the return of the punt return as a weapon for the Vols.
Before his early departure, Donte Stallworth showed signs of becoming that big-play return man by averaging nearly 17 yards on six returns including a 55-yard touchdown last season. Before that Tennessee didn't have a punt returned for a touchdown since 1999 when Eric Parker turned the trick against Memphis and helped the Vols avoid an upset. Parker was probably one of the most reliable punt returners in UT history in terms of fielding the ball in traffic, but his touchdown-to-return ratio 106-to-1 was one of the lowest in UT history.
Of course no man is an island, unless it's a return specialist who is waiting for a spiraling punt to drop from the sky while a thundering herd of defenders are descending on his position with malice in their hearts. Still it takes a team effort to make a punt return a reliable threat.
Keep that in mind as we review the top five punt returners in Tennessee football history. What follows is our list beginning with No. 1.
Bobby Majors (1969-71) followed in the footsteps of his brothers Johnny and Bill Majors to become the greatest punt returner in Tennessee history. Both of his older siblings led the Vols for two seasons in punt returns, but Bobby led the Vols three times and is the only Tennessee player to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for his career despite not being eligible to compete as a freshman. Majors also had more attempts than any Tennessee player with 117 for 1,163 yards averaging just under 10 yards per attempt. Majors benefited from playing during an era when Tennessee had a dominating defense, which forced a lot of punts, but was also a primary target for opposing special teams. He was avoided like root canal via directional punting whenever possible. Majors took four punts the distance during his playing days, including a 72-yarder against Kentucky and a 71-yard scoring return against Alabama in 1969. Majors also had a return for a touchdown in the 1970 Sugar Bowl against Air Force and a key TD return against Penn State in a 31-11 upset victory in 1971. Majors' timing and decision-making skills were outstanding. He rarely fumbled the football and he had excellent vision of the field. He probably knew how to set up and follow his blockers better than any player Tennessee has ever had. Majors led the nation with 10 interceptions and averaged nearly 18 yards per return in 1970 and was a consensus All-American in 1971. There were certainly players faster, quicker and more athletic, but no Volunteer was more consistently dangerous after catching the football than No. 44 Bobby Majors.
Stanley Morgan (1973-76) is the only player to be listed in the top five in both punt and kick returns for the Volunteers. He finished third all-time in total return yardage and led Tennessee three consecutive years in punt returns amassing 852 yards on 74 attempts for an 11.5 average per try. His 14.2 yard average in 1975 is a modern day record for players with at least 20 returns. One of the most gifted athletes in Tennessee history, Morgan also excelled as a tailback and a wide receiver. Morgan possessed all the traits of a great punt returner, including explosive speed, physical toughness, great vision and remarkable quickness. Morgan opened the 1975 season with a 70-yard punt return for a TD against Maryland and went on to the NFL the next season to become one of the greatest receivers in league history.
Eddie Brown (1971-73) was the model of consistency during his Tennessee playing days and forged a fine career as a defensive back and punt returner for the Washington Redskins. Brown led the Vols in punt returns in both 1972 and 1973 compiling 788 yards in 73 attempts for an average of 10.8 yards per return. He also returned 10 interceptions for 244 yards during his college playing days. Because he followed Majors and preceded Morgan, Brown is often overlooked for his punt return prowess, but he was as adept at finding a seam and hitting a hole as any player in Tennessee gridiron history. Additionally, Brown possessed great physical toughness. He once had his front teeth knocked out during a game in Memphis, but never missed a play. In 1973, Brown returned two punts for touchdowns including an 85-yarder against Georgia and a 79-yarder vs. Vanderbilt. Brown1s bold, take-no-prisoners approach made him a natural attraction for Redskins coach George Allen and earned him a job in the NFL. Brown became one of the league's top return specialist during his professional career.
Shawn Summers (1992-95) This selection might seem something of a surprise to most, but Summers has the stats to back it up