Starters on kick coverage

Some college football coaches choose to rest their defensive starters rather than use them on kickoff coverage. At Texas A&M in the 1980s, for instance, Jackie Sherrill fielded a "12th man" coverage unit consisting of 11 walk-ons.

On the flip side of that coin is Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer. He is not at all reluctant to use first-team players on his kickoff coverage unit.

"I feel fine about using starters," Fulmer said following a two-hour Saturday workout devoted exclusively to special teams. "That's a play of defense."

Tennessee generally uses a mixture of starters and reserves on kickoff coverage. At crunch time, however, Fulmer has been known to fortify his coverage team by putting 11 starters on it.

"When you get late in the game we actually have a 'super team,' which is all starters," he said. "We've done that if it's a real important kick where you want to make sure it's covered."

Demetrice Morley and Jonathan Wade, both starting defensive backs in 2006, were among Tennessee's leading special-teams' tacklers last season. Morley registered four stops and Wade three. First-team linebacker Marvin Mitchell and first-team safety Jonathan Hefney recorded a special-teams' tackle each last season.

In addition to several starters, Tennessee's coverage units historically feature a healthy dose of reserve linebackers. Rico McCoy shared the team lead in special-teams' tackles last fall with 7. Adam Myers-White (5), Dorian Davis (3), Ellix Wilson and Andre Mathis (2 each) also contributed significantly.

Fulmer is not averse to utilizing walk-ons on his coverage units if they earn his trust. Ben Greene, a non-scholarship safety, tied McCoy for the team lead in special-teams' tackles as a senior last fall with 7.

Tennessee's staff is still determining which players will make up this year's kickoff- and punt-coverage units, along with the kickoff- and punt-return units. Even with the puzzle not yet completed, Fulmer promised that the Vols will have "several starters on all of our special teams."

As the season progresses some of Tennessee's talented freshmen will work their way into special-teams' roles. For many, the kicking game is a good way to earn the coaching staff's confidence in their quest for meaningful playing time.

"It's the BEST way," Fulmer said. "It's the best way for them to earn their stripes and the trust of their coaches – with their effort and taking coaching and understanding and kind of getting their feet wet."


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