The 100-yard touchdown return by Peerless Price against Alabama in 1998 reversed momentum completely and propelled Tennessee to a 35-18 victory. Gary Moore's 98-yard return to open the 1979 contest against Auburn set the tone for Tennessee and launched the Vols to a 35-18 victory to end a three-game losing streak to the Tigers. Dale Carter's 91-yard gallop against Florida in 1990 was the most memorable play in an unforgettable 45-3 gut stomping of the Gators.
All three of those coast-to-coast cruises occurred before capacity crowds at the General's House and turned the course of a battle against a trio of Tennessee's most fierce enemies. To appreciate just how special a kickoff return for a touchdown is consider that there have only been 20 in UT football history for an average of about once every five years. There was over eight years between the Carter return and Price's TD and those are the only scores with kickoffs in the decade.
More often the measure of success for a kick returner is getting the ball out over the 20 while hanging on to the ball so the offense has some room to operate. If a kick is brought out beyond the 30 the offense has a good chance to establish favorable field position with just one first down.
Since the kicking game was established as an essential element to football success at Tennessee by Robert R. Neyland, it stands to reason the kickoff and return is where it all begins.
This leads to a simple question and our purpose today which is to rate the greatest kick returners in Tennessee football history. Tennessee's media guide lumps the category of kick returns into one with both punts and kickoffs. But the two require very different talents and the nuances to each art form are clearly distinct. The catch is most critical to punt while it is of less importance on the kick return. The punt return is about allowing the wall to set up, reaching the corner and turning up field. The kick return is more about hitting behind the wedge with a burst of speed and perfect timing.
Both require the heart of a lion, the quickness of a cobra, the speed of a gazelle and the eye of a eagle. It's a matter of getting to daylight among a maze of human missiles all programed to turn your lights out.
Oh, but what rewards if you find your way to the promised land. In time you may be forgotten but your deed will live on forever. For example: Can you recall anything about Pete Panuska other than his name and his 100-yard kick return for a touchdown against Maryland in the 1984 Sun Bowl? That epic feat puts Panuska in the record book for the longest kick return in Tennessee history, tying the mark of Price and another famous Volunteer who just happens to be selected by as Tennessee's best ever.
No. 1 -- Willie Gault (1980-82), This is a no-brainer. Gault holds both the record for most kickoff return yardage in a career at Tennessee with 1817, the single-season mark with 662 yards in 1980 and the most touchdowns in team history with five. Gault has personally accounted for 25 percent of Tennessee's touchdown total on kickoff returns. No other Volunteer has ever had more than one, except Gene McEvers with two. He averaged 24.1 yards per kick return for his career. The sleek Gault was the personification of fast. He was so swift that he couldn't jog through a school zone without speeding. He went on to win a gold medal as a member of the world record-breaking four-by-100-meter U.S. Olympic team and he even earned a spot in the Winter Olympics as a member of the bobsled team. In addition, he enjoyed a highly successful pro football career and was a member of the Super Bowl champion Bears of 1986. Gault's 100-yard return in 1980 was the only touchdown Tennessee scored in a dismal 30-6 defeat to Pittsburgh at Neyland Stadium and struck a blow for battered Volunteer pride. Against LSU in 1982, Gault saw a hole, hit warp speed and streaked untouched 96 yards to pay dirt in 10 seconds flat. That return enabled the Vols to tie the favored Tigers in Baton Rogue and salvage a winning season (6-5-1) that included a Peach Bowl bid. His 87-yard return sewed the seeds for a Garden State Bowl victory, 28-27, over Wisconsin in 1981. Whenever Gault raced on the field for a kick return the anticipation in the crowd reached electric levels and the decimal meter would start to hum like a bee hive. Then the announcement would boom from the PA system: Deep to receive, Willie Gault. We'll leave you to fill in your favorite memory.
No. 2 -- Dale Carter (1990-91), In two seasons Carter returned 44 kicks for 1130 yards averaging 25.7 yards for his career to rank second behind Gault on Tennessee's career list. Carter had outstanding speed, strength and balance. His reckless-abandon style differed dramatically from the self-proclaimed Chocolate Swirl, Willie Gault, and made for some seemingly impossible broken tackles. One such play occurred in the aforementioned 91-yard touchdown versus Florida when he was hit a wicked head-on blast, but never lost his balance. Probably the most daring kick returner in Tennessee history, Carter never saw a kick he couldn't take out of the end zone or a punt he couldn't catch and return. He didn't always secure the ball well, but he was at times a nearly unstoppable force who found a way to get the ball in good field position. With a little better judgment Carter might have averaged 30 yards per kick return for his career. But if he did that, he wouldn't have been Dale Carter.
No. 3 Leonard Scott (1999 to present) The only player on this list that has an opportunity to lead the Vols in the kickoff returns four straight seasons, Scott moved into UT's No.2 spot behind Gault last year and has a shot at the SEC record for a career this season. Another sprinter in the mold of Gault and Richmond Flowers, Scott has averaged 23.1 yards per return for his career which still ranks behind Gault, Carter and Gary Moore. Ironically Scott had his best season to this point as a freshman when he averaged 27.0 yards on 20 returns, including a 100-yard effort against the Georgia Bulldogs. That average has incrementally fallen to 23.6 on 27 returns as a sophomore and 20.9 last year on 25 returns with a long of 49 yards. Scott has a chance to push himself to the top of the SEC list this season but Gault's five kickoffs for touchdowns will never be touched. Additionally it took Scott 19 more returns and three seasons to edge out Carter, who played two years for the Vols, for No. 2 on UT's career list. If Scott can rediscover the fearless approach to returning kicks he had as a freshman he push his career yardage total past the 2,300-yard mark. And a couple of touchdowns wouldn't hurt his ranking or his rep.
No. 4 Gary Moore (1977-79) Although he's the least heralded player on this list, he was a fixture as a return man during Johnny Majors' first three seasons as head coach at Tennessee. Moore might have benefited from Majors' emphasis on the kicking game, but his stats make a convincing case that he belongs with the best. Moore ranks right behind Carter on the career yardage list with 996 and he averaged better than Gault with 24.3 yards in 41 returns. Moore was an explosive runner with excellent strength and good vision. His return for a touchdown to open the Auburn game in 1979 is arguably the most electrifying in Tennessee history. The Vols wore all orange that day and scored an emotional victory over the Tigers.
No. 5 Stanley Morgan (1973-76) In addition to playing tailback, wide receiver and occasionally at free safety, Morgan was a constant threat as a punt and kick returner. Ranks fifth on Tennessee's all-time kickoff return yardage list with 763 despite assuming a variety of duties for declining teams. His speed was as amazing as his strength was surprising. Morgan didn't ever return a kickoff for a touchdown in his career, but he kept special team's coaches up at night and forced teams to spend extra time preparing for the threat he posed. He averaged over 20 yards per kick return for his career and went on to become one of the best wide receivers in NFL history.
Honorable mention: Carl Pickens was rare in that he was 6-foot-3 kick return man in addition to thriving as a freshman at free safety and later flourishing on offense at wide receiver. He actually only returned kicks one season at Tennessee, but still ranks seventh on Tennessee's all-time yardage list with 594. He averaged 22.9 yards a kick that season and his touchdown against LSU was a thing of beauty. How could a man this big be so hard to catch?
That's our list and it wasn't easy to make the cuts. Apologies to Mallon Faircloth who played on some bad Tennessee teams during his three years from 1961-63. His 620 career yards rank fifth on UT's all-time list and his average of 28.1 yards per kick tops the Vols in returns. He also returned a kick for a 96-yard TD against UT Chattanooga. We simply didn't have enough film available to make a judgment and speed wasn't as big a factor during his era.
Another honorable mention goes to Bobby Majors who returned only 16 kickoffs his entire career, but he averaged 30 yards on eight attempts in 1971. Ditto for Gene McEver who returned kickoffs for touchdowns of 98 yards against Alabama in 1928 and 90 yards against Centre in 1929.