KO punch

In one year Tennessee has gone from worst to first among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in kickoff returns.

The Vols ranked No. 12 in the league and No. 117 in the nation during the 2006 season with a putrid 16.1-yard average. Ten games into the 2007 season, however, they rank No. 1 in the league and No. 7 in the nation with a 25.1-yard average. Even taking into account that teams now kick off from the 30-yard line, instead of the 35, that's a dramatic improvement.

So, what's the deal?

For one thing, the Vols are blocking well – and legally – on kickoff returns.

"We've had no penalties on kickoff returns," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We have worked diligently."

Another key to the improved returns is pretty obvious.

"Usually," Fulmer said, "it's the guy returning."

After managing a paltry 20.0 yards per runback in 2006, LaMarcus Coker was averaging 26.7 in 2007 before he was dismissed from the team. His departure opened the door for freshman Dennis Rogan, who has taken the ball and run with it ... literally. He's averaging 35.2 yards on six returns with a 78-yarder last weekend against Arkansas.

"He had a huge play for us last week," Fulmer said, adding that he likes what he has seen from fellow freshmen Lennon Creer (17.7 average) and Denarius Moore (21.8) and would "love to get Gerald Jones, Kenny O'Neal and some other guys back there who have some dynamics of speed and ability with the ball."

Although he concedes that the Vols are much better on kickoff returns this fall, Fulmer bristled a bit when a reporter suggested earlier this week that the Vols were terrible in that department a year ago.

"We had some really unusual things happen," the coach said. "We slipped down on the 1. We had several really nice returns that were brought back because of a block in the back or holding. It really wasn't like we fumbled and bumbled and couldn't make a yard."

Regardless, Rogan has injected new life into Tennessee's kickoff-return game, and he's hoping to do the same for the punt-return game. He replaced senior Jonathan Hefney in that role two games ago but has returned just five punts to date. On two of them he was belted to the ground just as he caught the ball. On the other three he picked up 32 yards.

Hefney did a terrific job in 2006 but seemed to lose his confidence in 2007. Still, Fulmer insists the decision to replace Hefney should not be viewed as a demotion.

"We weren't near where we wanted to be," the head man said. "Jon Hefney had a great year for us last year. But with all of the duties, the youth and the number of plays they were playing on defense, I felt like it was important to take some of that responsibility away from him and try Dennis."

Not one to make rash decisions, Fulmer spent roughly a month evaluating Rogan in practice before allowing him to field punts in an actual game.

"We really worked him hard in practice for a number of weeks – letting him handle all of the different situations that could come up because that's a huge exchange of field position all of a sudden," Fulmer said. "The most important thing is to have the ball.

"He had some rough spots in practice but he certainly understands now what needs to be done. Because he's fresher and he's got some dynamics, he's added a lot to our punt-return game. He's been really close (to breaking loose) on a couple of punt returns."

Creer and Moore have been close to popping some kickoff returns, too.

As Fulmer noted: "I think there are some good viable options there."

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