Candidates galore

Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer likes to talk about the importance of "hidden yardage" during the course of a football game.

For instance, if the Vols average 5 yards on four punt returns and their opponent averages 15 yards on the same number, Tennessee is losing the equivalent of one first down on each exchange of punts. That's significant over the course of a game.

Here's another example: Say, Tennessee allows a 40-yard kickoff return but puts the other three kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. The opponent has a flashy 40-yard kickoff return average, yet its average starting field position was its own 25-yard line.

In his ongoing quest to upgrade Tennessee's kicking game, Fulmer is giving just about every skill-position player on the Vol roster a chance to return kickoffs and punts this preseason.

At the start of last Saturday's full-scale scrimmage, for instance, the following guys fielded punts:

Sophomore receiver Gerald Jones

Redshirt freshman receiver Tyler Maples

Sophomore receiver Denarius Moore

Junior receiver Austin Rogers

Sophomore cornerback Brent Vinson

The odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 man on punt returns, of course, is sophomore defensive back Dennis Rogan. He wrested the punt-return duties away from senior Jonathan Hefney midway through the 2007 season and averaged 9.7 yards per runback down the stretch.

Rogan was among a group of Vols who returned kickoffs last Saturday, as well. He fielded one Daniel Lincoln kick at the goal line and probably would've had a 100-yard return had Phil Fulmer not blown the play dead just as Rogan was kicking into high gear.

Rogan averaged a healthy 29.5 yards on 13 kickoff returns last year and appears even better on them than he is on punts.

Other kickoff return options include Jones, Maples, Rogers and Vinson, along with two guys who handled those duties at times last fall. Sophomore tailback Lennon Creer averaged 18.7 on 13 returns last fall and the afore-mentioned Denarius Moore averaged 21.8 yards on four returns last fall.

Senior tailback Arian Foster averaged a whopping 39.0 yards on three runbacks in 2007 but may be too busy as the centerpiece of the offense to risk overworking him on special teams.

The Vols hold their second full-scale scrimmage of the preseason this Saturday, so the ongoing battle for return jobs should intensify.

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