Making special teams special

For years Tennessee football fans have been clamoring for one coach to oversee special teams. They're finally getting their wish.

Whereas Phillip Fulmer divided the various phases of special teams' play among seven assistants, successor Lane Kiffin has designated one guy to be accountable for all aspects of the kicking game – Eddie Gran.

Since Gran also coaches Vol running backs, you might wonder if he can devote the time needed to make UT's special teams truly special. Based on his track record, the answer would have to be yes.

In 10 years as Tommy Tuberville's running backs/special-teams coach at Auburn, Gran proved quite capable of handling both responsibilities.

Tiger place-kicker John Vaughn was SEC Special Teams Player of the Year in 2006. That same season saw Auburn lead the SEC in kickoff coverage, field-goal percentage, PAT percentage and punting.

Gran's special teams were exceptional again last season. Auburn's Robert Dunn led the SEC in punt-return average (16.0 yards) and teammate Tristan Davis led the league in kickoff-return average (27.4 yards).

Moveover, the 2008 Tigers ranked third among SEC teams in net punting (37.6-yard average), fourth in net kickoff coverage (44.6 yards), fourth in punt returns (13.0 yards) and second in kickoff returns (24.5 yards).

The fact is, Auburn finished ahead of Tennessee in every single special-teams category last fall except for PAT percentage.

As UT fans are acutely aware, the Big Orange has been seriously inconsistent in special-teams play the past few years. Except for PAT kicking (tied for No. 1 at 100 percent) and kickoff returns (No. 3 at 23.6 yards), the 2008 Vols finished in the bottom third of the SEC in all of the major special teams categories – kickoff coverage (No. 8 at 41.7 yards), punt returns (No. 9 at 7.6 yards), net punting (No. 10 at 34.9 yards) and field-goal kicking (dead last at 52.6 percent).

Don't feel bad enough yet? Then consider a few of the special-teams mishaps that contributed to the Vols' 5-7 disaster last fall:

Game 1: A blocked punt is returned for a gift touchdown by UCLA, helping the Bruins upset the Vols.

Game 3: A 52-yard return of the opening kickoff and a 78-yard punt return – both by Brandon James in the first quarter – opens the floodgates in a lopsided loss to Florida.

Game 9: A 67-yard kickoff return by Chris Culliver helps South Carolina bury the Vols.

Kiffin recognizes the need for an upgrade in UT's special teams, and vows to make it a high priority this spring.

"I think you will see a ton of time devoted to special teams over this month," he said.

Toward that end, the head coach says any Vol who can contribute on special teams will be assigned a role, no matter how valuable the player might be on offense or defense.

"Everyone is available; there is no one who is not available to Coach Gran on special teams," Kiffin said. "Eventually, as we develop the depth chart, starters will play on special teams.

"We've got to be a great special teams team, especially early on as we go through this transition of learning a new offense and playing great defense."


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