Vols have coverage concerns

Georgia exposed Tennessee's coverage problems on Oct. 7, when Mikey Henderson returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and teammate Thomas Brown returned a kickoff 99 yards for a TD in the same game.

Those woes could be exposed again this weekend against Kentucky. The Wildcats rank No. 1 among Southeastern Conference teams in punt return average (22.1 yards) and No. 3 in kickoff return average (24.6).

Clearly, Kentucky puts a lot of work into its special teams, and that work pays dividends on a regular basis. Rafael Little returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown last weekend against Louisiana-Monroe. Teammate Keenan Burton returned a kickoff 100 yards in the opener against Louisville.

Little averages 25.9 yards per punt return, which would lead the SEC except that he has too few runbacks to qualify for the league rankings. Burton ranks third in kickoff returns at 25.5. If you kick away from Burton, you risk being burned by Dicky Lyons, Jr. Son of the former UK basketball point guard, Lyons averages a healthy 24.1 per runback.

Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer knows the statistics. And he knows the Wildcats' knack for spectacular returns poses plenty of problems this weekend.

"That's a big concern," he said. "Little is not rated in the punt-return area because he was injured for a while and doesn't have enough returns, but he's one of the best out there. He is also an outstanding kickoff return guy, as is Burton."

If Tennessee's kickoff and punt coverage gets even a little lax on Saturday, the Wildcats could pop a couple of big returns and spoil the Vols' regular-season finale.

"That is something we addressed starting yesterday (Monday)," Fulmer said, "and certainly will continue to address during the course of the week."

Tennessee's kick coverage has improved since the meltdown at Georgia, partly because James Wilhoit has been putting most of his kickoffs (33 of 67 to be precise) into the end zone.

"He has kicked a good percentage of his kickoffs into the end zone, which takes outstanding kickoff returners out of the game," Fulmer conceded. "That's been a big plus for us."

The coach says Tennessee's coverage men deserve credit, too, noting that they are staying in their lanes better and not getting caught out of position.

"We have been much better with our lane discipline, and our kicker and punter have done a really good job," Fulmer said, adding that there "never was an effort issue at all. Sometimes it was being too aggressive and getting undisciplined."

Regardless, Kentucky's best chance to spring an upset of the 19th-ranked Vols this Saturday may be to break a few big returns.

Fulmer summed it up in one sentence: "This week it's really important that we kick the ball well, kick it where we want to and do a great job with our coverage."

Otherwise, this Saturday could be Oct. 7 all over again.


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