Bizarre but beneficial

Late in the first quarter of Saturday's game with Georgia, seven Tennessee football players lined up in what appeared to be calisthenics formation – far enough apart that their fingers wouldn't touch if they suddenly burst into a set of jumping-jacks.

It wasn't calisthenics formation, though. It was punt formation.

Instead of five 300-pound offensive linemen packed shoulder to shoulder with a tight end on each flank and a gunner split wide on each side, there were seven guys in the 190- to 225-pound range aligned roughly five feet apart. Approximately 10 yards behind them were three players in the 260-pound range. Another five yards back was punter Britton Colquitt.

Fans were stunned. So were Georgia's players. They applied very little pressure, enabling Colquitt to angle the punt out of bounds at the Bulldog 24-yard line. His subsequent punts – also from the so-called "open set" – proved similarly effective. He averaged 42 yards per punt, while limiting Georgia return ace Mikey Henderson to just two returns for a measly 11 yards. That's an amazing statistic, considering that Tennessee entered the game allowing 28.8 yards per punt return to rank dead last nationally in that category.

Bottom line: The open-set proved just as beneficial as it was bizarre.

Asked earlier today what the thinking is behind the weird-looking alignment, Vol assistant coach Kurt Roper deadpanned, "Obviously, trying to get guys tackled is the thought process behind it."

Basically, the open-set relies on the fact that a bunch of athletic 190- to 260-pounders will get downfield in coverage much quicker than a bunch of plodding 300-pound offensive linemen.

"The spread punt allowed us to put some faster bodies on the field, as opposed to our normal punt, because you need big bodies for protection in that," Roper explained. "That's what inspired it but the whole thought process is just to get people (opposing return men) on the ground."

Whereas Georgia was not ready for the open-set punts last Saturday, Mississippi State likely will be this Saturday. The Bulldogs have all week to work on a counter measure before hosting the Vols.

"Sure," Roper said. "I think it surprised Georgia a little bit.... It looked like they settled into one thing. They didn't have a bunch of schemes against it. As the season progresses, people are going to give us multiple looks, multiple pressures, and try to be more aggressive coming after us and trying to block punts."

Because Georgia never mustered much of a rush, Tennessee was able to use the same type of players on punt coverage that it uses on kickoff coverage – speedy guys who can get downfield in a hurry.

"We tried to use tight end, linebacker, safety bodies in the other one," Roper said, referring to the Vols' traditional punt formation. "This one has allowed us to use more wide receivers and running backs."

Oddly enough, the three Vols stationed five yards in front of Colquitt were considerably bigger than the guys upfront.

"We do have defensive ends and tight ends in the back part of it, so we still have some big bodies," Roper said. "But those guys are good athletes, too. Wes Brown (a 260-pound defensive end) went down and made a heck of a play on one."


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