Britton Colquitt, finally recovered from a preseason quadriceps pull that limited him in Games 1-4, turned in a brilliant performance as the Vols' punter and kickoff specialist Saturday at Neyland Stadium. He was the primary reason Tennessee won the kicking game, a rare occurrence against a Georgia program known for superior special-teams play.
Noting that the kicking game was vastly superior in Game 5 to its level in Games 1-4, head coach Phillip Fulmer surmised that, "Britton Colquitt is the difference in that a lot."
No doubt. Consider the evidence:
Georgia's Mikey Henderson returned a punt for a touchdown in last year's game with Tennessee. Not this time, though. Colquitt consistently punted the ball out of bounds. Even when he missed, he pinned Henderson against the sideline, thereby limiting the shifty Bulldog to just 11 yards on two returns. Despite punting out of bounds on several occasions, Colquitt averaged 42 yards per kick.
Georgia's Thomas Brown returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in last year's game with Tennessee. Not this time, though. Colquitt kicked the ball high, deep and directionally – regularly putting the ball near the sideline. With only half the field to cover, Tennessee limited Brown to 55 yards on three runbacks. Two of Colquitt's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Daniel Lincoln and Chad Cunningham, who handled the kickoff chores in Games 1-4, did not manage a single touchback between them.
Best of all, the quality hang time time on Colquitt's booming kickoffs made life a whole lot easier for the Vols' coverage unit.
"We had been busting our butts on kickoff returns but the ball's been hanging for 3.6 to 3.7 seconds," Fulmer said. "He kicks it up there 4.1 to 4.2 and in the locations that we need 'em kicked at. That makes a tremendous difference."
So does having a healthy Colquitt. He elevates Tennessee's kicking game from awful to awesome all by himself.
Through the first four games the Vols had surrendered two punt returns for touchdowns and ranked dead last nationally by allowing 28.8 yards per runback. Their kickoffs were so poor that opponents routinely opened drives at the 35- to 45-yard line. Conversely, the Bulldogs started Saturday's post-kickoff drives at their 20, their 25, their 21, their 16, their 35 (on an out-of-bounds kick) and their 20 again.
"We didn't coach it any better," Fulmer said of the kickoff coverage. "The player (Colquitt) made a difference, a tremendous difference."
Colquitt wasn't the only special-teams star for Tennessee. Ellix Wilson blocked a punt to set up a 48-yard Vol touchdown drive.
"Ellix Wilson's blocked punt was a huge play in the ballgame," Fulmer noted. "And the coverage teams were good."
One reason for the improved punt coverage was a new spread scheme Tennessee unveiled. Instead of having its blockers shoulder to shoulder, it had them two-arms' length apart, leaving huge gaps in the line. The alignment looked bizarre but it worked.
"We did go to the open-set punts just to get more athletes on the field," Fulmer explained. "We'll continue to work with that and have a chance to do both (tight-set and open-set punts). I think it's important that we're able to do both."