Most Dangerous Cat? It's Abney

Willie Gault, generally considered the greatest return specialist in UT history, had five touchdown runbacks during his illustrious four-year career. Kentucky's Derek Abney has SIX touchdown returns this year alone ... an NCAA record.

Clearly, Abney poses a huge threat for Tennessee, which hosts the Big Blue Saturday at 12:30 in the regular-season finale.

Abney has returned 34 punts for 538 yards (a 15.8-yard average) and four touchdowns. He has returned 27 kickoffs for 738 yards (a 27.3-yard average) and two more TDs. Oh, yeah, he's also UK's leading receiver with 38 catches for 446 yards.

It is Abney's extaordinary skills as a return man, however, that create the biggest headache for the Vols. Just ask Florida Coach Ron Zook ... or Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill. Abney burned Zook's Gators for a 100-yard kickoff return AND a 49-yard punt return TD on Sept. 28. He torched Sherrill's Bulldogs for scoring punt returns of 69 and 52 yards on Nov. 2.

That raises the question: What will Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer do to try and neutralize Abney?

''We certainly will look at all of the possibilities to keep him from fielding as many balls as we can -- whether it's kicking the ball out of bounds, to the sidelines or across the field,'' Fulmer said.

Still, the Vol skipper isn't about to surrender the field-position battle in an effort to keep Abney from padding his TD total. He has confidence that kickoff man Phillip Newman and punter Dustin Colquitt can use hang time and directional kicking to offset Abney's return skills somewhat.

''The other side of that coin is that Dustin is doing a great job of hanging it up really high,'' Fulmer said. ''We were able to manage that last year.''

Indeed. The 2001 Vols limited Abney to 25 yards on four punt returns (6.25 yards per try) and 70 yards on four kickoff returns (17.5 yards per attempt). The catch is, UK has better blocking on its return teams than last year ... and Tennessee has lost some of its top kickoff and punt coverage men to injury this fall.

''With some of the injuries we've had, our special teams have suffered in some of those areas,'' Fulmer said. ''Some of those young guys are going to have to do a great job of coverage. And, whether we decide to kick the ball out of bounds, to the sideline, across the field or fake it -- or whatever we do -- Dustin's going to have to do a good job of hanging the ball high. The same thing on kickoff returns. We'll have to have a nice mix to keep them off-balance.''

Although shanking the ball out of bounds is a concern whenever a punt attempts a directional kick, Fulmer said Colquitt relied heavily on directional kicking against Georgia earlier this season and ''did an excellent job against their outstanding return man.''

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