Special teams show up big-time

Steve Caldwell deserves a pat on the back ... or at least an ''attaboy.''

Caldwell, the UT defensive ends coach who is in his first year doubling as ''kicking game coordinator,'' deserves a game ball for Saturday night's 26-3 defeat of Middle Tennessee State. If the Vol offense had performed as fruitfully as Caldwell's corps, the score would've been more along the lines of 77-3.

Although kicker Alex Walls pulled a quadricep muscle in pregame warmups and missed the contest, backup Phillip Newman came through in a pinch. The Georgia Tech transfer put three of six kickoffs so deep in the end zone that they resulted in touchbacks. The other three were returned to the 10-, 11- and 15-yard lines, thanks to good hang time and superior coverage.

The punting game was just as outstanding, as UT posted a ''net'' average of 44.0. Dustin Colquitt sailed his first punt out of bounds at the MTSU 10-yard line. Backed up near their own goal line, the Blue Raiders eventually surrendered a safety when their punt was blocked through the end zone. Colquitt's only other punt -- the pooch kick variety -- was downed at the MTSU 1-yard line, setting up a fumble recovery for Tennessee's final touchdown.

Corey Larkins averaged 31.5 yards on two kickoff returns and Mark Jones had a 35-yard runback on his lone return. Rashad Baker averaged a solid 11.0 yards on five punt returns.

The only negative in the kicking game was the fact Newman missed two of three field goal tries. After making a 35-yarder, he misfired from 38 and had a 42-yarder blocked.

Though pleased with the overall effort of the special teams, Caldwell said there's still plenty of work to be done.

''We're not satisfied by any means,'' he said. ''We had an offsides (that forced Newman to redo the opening kickoff) and we had a holding (that nullified part of a kickoff return). We've got to continue to improve."

Still, mention of the punt block brought a big smile to Caldwell's face.

''That was great,'' he said. ''Our return game is better, so they (opponents) are trying to get their protection out quicker to cover. Once they started trying to get downfield instead of holding up (to block), that's when we came with the block. Coach (Larry) Slade did a good job seeing that and calling the block.''

Although Jason Mitchell was credited with blocking the kick, he had plenty of company in the MTSU backfield.

''It looked to me like every one of them came through there,'' Caldwell said. ''I couldn't tell exactly where the crease was.''

Special-teams play is a thankless job performed mostly by second- and third-team players. Caldwell knows he must keep them motivated and determined.

''It keeps them in the ballgame,'' he said. ''The thing we've preached to them is that it's going to take everybody on the team. If you can contribute on special teams, that's two reps one of the starters doesn't have to make.''

Although Jones returned four punts in the Wyoming game, Baker handled all five of the punt runbacks vs. MTSU.

''He's a little more dynamic,'' Caldwell said. ''Mark Jones does a great job. He guarantees you'll catch the ball, but right now Rashad's a little more dynamic, and that's the reason he's back there instead of Mark.''


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