Larkins' shaky performance, coupled with the fact Mark Jones returned a kickoff 82 yards* for a touchdown, has Fulmer considering giving Jones some of Larkins' responsibilities. Though Jones lacks Larkins' raw speed, his return stats are comparable. Larkins is averaging 14.7 yards on punts, Jones 12.7. Larkins is averaging 25.5 on kickoffs, Jones 58.5. Moreover, Vol coaches say Jones has surer hands than Larkins or Rashad Baker, who also has handled return duties for the Vols this season.
''Mark will be back there as a punt returner,'' Fulmer said, not indicating whether Jones will have the job parttime or fulltime. ''Larkins was doing so well on kickoff returns and had the 41-yard (punt) return against Georgia. We'll continue to work all those guys but Mark is making some things happen.''
In addition to his beefed-up role on special teams, Jones also may see more action at safety than he has in previous games.
''I like Mark a lot,'' Fulmer said. ''We feel like we have three or four safeties (Jones, Baker, Gibril Wilson, Julian Battle) who could start. Gibril Wilson (who started the past two games) kind of pushed himself into the position because of his physical play. To us, they're all productive players, and I'm really proud of what Mark's gotten done.''
Asked if there might be personnel changes at any of the offensive positions, Fulmer paused thoughtfully before answering: ''There's some competition at the guard positions. Cody Douglas and Rob Smith (both freshmen) are much closer to being able to help us in the offensive line.''
However, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders says fans needn't expect changes in personnel this week. Basically, he says his hands are tied in that regard.
''Whether it's injury or inexperience,'' the coordinator said, ''we don't have a whole lot of options available to us.''
*NOTE: Jones' touchdown return against Bama, originally recorded as covering 87 yards, was actually 82. Thus, his average for the season is 58.5, not 61.0, as some UT releases show.