Improving in the other areas of special-team's play, however, should be a relatively small challenge.
The Big Orange ranked dead last among the 12 SEC teams in field-goal percentage last fall – Daniel Lincoln (10 of 18) and Britton Colquitt (0 of 1) combining to make just 52.6 percent of their tries. Lincoln struggled some in spring scrimmages but you have to believe he'll bounce back in 2009. After all, the guy was a first-team All-American after making 21 of 29 attempts as a redshirt in 2007.
The Vols weren't much better in net punting, finishing 10th among SEC teams. Chad Cunningham and Colquitt combined for an adequate gross punting average of 40.9 but their net of 34.9 was unacceptable. With Colquitt departed, Cunningham will have the job to himself this fall. He averaged 39.5 gross yards last season, ranking 10th among SEC punters in that category.
Tennessee also struggled on punt returns in '08, ranking ninth in the conference. The Vols' 7.6-yard average was a full 10 yards off the league-leading mark of 17.6 posted by the Georgia Bulldogs, who always seem to excel in special teams. In limited action last fall Gerald Jones averaged 10.0 yards per return – seventh among SEC players – and should be able to provide an upgrade this fall.
Kickoff coverage wasn't exactly a Big Orange strength last season, either. Tennessee ranked eighth at 41.4 yards per kickoff. That means opponents' average starting field position was their own 29-yard line. Kentucky led the SEC at 47.3, so Wildcat foes started at their 23-yard line on average.
Other than PAT-kicking, the only area of special teams in which Tennessee excelled last fall was kickoff returns. Dennis Rogan ranked second individually among SEC players at 24.9 yards per runback, helping UT finish third in team returns at 23.6. With Rogan back for another tour of duty, the Vols should be good in this category again.
Coming off mediocre seasons in 2008, both Lincoln and Cunningham project to be better in '09. Kickoff coverage, punt coverage and punt returns were woeful last season, so the Vols should improve in those areas, as well.
Based on my usual scale of Plus-2 (significantly stronger), Plus-1 (somewhat stronger), Zero (about the same), Minus-1 (somewhat weaker) and Minus-2 (significantly weaker), I'm giving UT's 2009 special teams a plus-1 rating. They almost HAVE to be better in '09 than they were in '08.