Return engagement

There is a slight chance Tennessee will have a veteran and a freshman handling kickoff returns in the Sept. 1 opener at Cal.

There is a better chance Tennessee will have two veterans handling the job.

There is no chance Tennessee will have two freshmen handling the job.

"I won't have two young guys back there," head coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Fulmer is more than a little nervous about allowing a freshman to return kickoffs in an opener, especially when the game is against a top-25 opponent before a hostile crowd on national television. He figures that's a little too much tension for a rookie to handle.

That's why the deep men for Game 1 likely will be two juniors who are projected starters on offense.

"Right now it probably would be Foster and Taylor," Fulmer said, referring to running back Arian Foster and receiver Lucas Taylor.

Taylor returned seven kickoffs last season for a nondescript 16.9-yard average. His longest return was 25 yards. Foster returned two kicks for 20 total yards last fall. He got 19 of those yards on one return, one yard on the other.

Taylor and Foster are not likely to return a kickoff 100 yards but they are not likely to fumble the ball away at the 10-yard line, either. That's a recurring nightmare Fulmer cannot seem to shake.

"The thing you don't want to do is give somebody a cheap score because you mishandle a kickoff," the head man said. "Been there, done that."

LaMarcus Coker handled most of Tennessee's kickoff returns in 2006 and projected to do the same in 2007 until he was indefinitely suspended two weeks ago. Coker averaged a pedestrian 19.9 yards per return last year but has the speed to be a home run threat.

Senior Jonathan Hefney distinguished himself on punt returns last fall. He is the starting free safety, however, and Fulmer is afraid adding kickoff-return duties to his dance card would tax Hefney a bit too much.

Several intriguing freshmen have been working on returns this fall – receiver Denarius Moore, plus cornerbacks Eric Berry and Dennis Rogan to name just a few. Each has the speed and elusiveness to handle the job.

Berry hurt his chances by fumbling the opening kickoff of Scrimmage No. 2 last Saturday night. Moore enhanced his chances by returning a kickoff 95 yards in the same scrimmage, although the runback was nullified by a penalty. Rogan returned a kickoff 28 yards in Tuesday's scrimmage and later returned an interception 41 yards.

"He's in the mix," Fulmer said of Rogan. "He's fearless as a returner. He's done a good job securing the ball."

Fulmer rarely allows an interception to be returned in scrimmages, fearful that a key offensive player (i.e. – quarterback) might be injured while trying to make a tackle. The coach made an exception in Rogan's case on Tuesday, however.

"Usually after we get an interception like we had I blow the whistle pretty quick because I don't want to see some big collision and somebody gets hurt," Fulmer said. "But I let him run, and he showed his running skills pretty good."

Although he prefers having a veteran return kicks, the Vol coach conceded that Rogan and Moore bring a big-play dimension that is attractive.

"Those young guys bring some dynamics and speed that I like," Fulmer said. "They're handling the ball better and we're working in practice on communicating upfront."

If Rogan or Moore is going to win a job on the return team, he'd better do it soon. Fulmer likely will settle on his Game 1 deep men following Saturday morning's kicking scrimmage.

"We've got to settle on that this week actually," the head man said. "We'll go into Monday having all of that settled, I hope."


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