Hefney runs wild

A more aggressive approach on punt returns paid handsome dividends for Tennessee in Saturday afternoon's game with visiting Alabama. In fact, it was one of the overriding keys to the Volunteers' 16-13 triumph.

On Bama's first two punts Tennessee massed to rush the kicker, something the Vols rarely do. The strategy forced the Tide to focus more on protecting the punter than covering the punt ... and that was all the opening Jonathan Hefney needed.

Hefney, the starting free safety in Larry Slade's secondary, returned Bama's first punt 32 yards but the Vols squandered the great field position by missing a 46-yard field goal. Hefney made a 40-yard return early in the third quarter, and this time Tennessee took advantage with a 47-yard James Wilhoit field that goal tied the score at 6-all.

Hefney's success apparently rattled the Tide coverage team. He was hit prior to catching the ball on his first return of the fourth quarter, resulting in a 15-yard penalty that helped set up another Vol field goal. Bama's next punt went out of bounds after just 29 yards, providing a short field for Tennessee's game-winning touchdown drive. The Tide's final punt carried a paltry 31 yards, giving UT possession near midfield.

"There's no question, our punt returns made a big difference in the ball game," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his Sunday teleconference.

Through the first six games of 2006, Tennessee hauled back six punts for a mere 42 yards. Hefney returned six more on Saturday for 104 yards. The obvious question: What changed?

"I think the guys inside did a really good job holding up Alabama's front," Fulmer said. "We came after a punt or two early that really got their antenna up about staying in to protect, and that helped us. Our deep protectors did a really good job of keeping the first guy downfield off Jon and giving him a chance. Those things together gave us a chance to be successful."

Hefney did the rest. He isn't a burner but he reads his blocks well, has some elusiveness and knows how to hit a seam when it opens.

"He's got good vision but fantastic feet," Fulmer said. "He can accelerate from start to full speed about as quickly as anybody on our team, and he uses good judgment about handling the ball."

In one spectacular evening, Hefney tripled the Vols' punt return yardage total and moved them from eighth to fourth place in SEC punt-return statistics by boosting their average from 7.0 yards per runback to 12.2.

Given all of the above, you wonder why he isn't returning kickoffs, too.

"He would be," Fulmer noted, "but we're so thin in the secondary. That's one reason we went with Austin Rogers (on punt returns prior to his injury) even though we gave up a little bit in the return game.

"If we had an injury back there, Coach Slade might have to go in there and play, and I don't want that."


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