'Nuke' can juke

Tennessee punt returns apparently will be a lot more exciting in 2009 than in 2008. That may not be an altogether positive development, though.

The Vols should improve on last season's paltry 7.6-yard average, since No. 1 return specialist Nu'keese Richardson has fast feet and electrifying moves. The rub is, the 5-10, 165-pound freshman also has a tendency to take his eyes off the ball. As a result, he muffed a punt in each of Tennessee's last two scrimmages. No one is more surprised by the mishaps than Richardson himself.

"Oh, definitely," he said following Saturday's situational scrimmage. "In high school we never had (to face) a kicker that could kick it 60 yards in the air."

After noting that fielding punts is "kind of difficult," Richardson added: "I'm still trying to adjust to it."

Some of his adjustment stems from the fact Tennessee's Chad Cunningham and David Harrington tend to get excellent hang time on their punts. As a result, Richardson may get a little antsy waiting for the ball to arrive.

"That's part of it," he conceded. "I've just got to keep my eye on it."

Once he stops muffing punts, Richardson could provide the dimension for Tennessee that Percy Harvin provided for Florida the past four years - a guy who can line up just about anywhere and do just about anything.

When he saw himself listed No. 1 as a wide receiver and No. 1 as the punt-return specialist on the depth chart, though, Richardson admits he wasn't sure how to react.

"Really, I was shocked," he said. "It was a lot of hard work I put in (to win those jobs) but I was just shocked."

In addition to returning punts and playing wide receiver, Richardson will be utilized as a shotgun quarterback on occasion. That might be asking too much ... except that he played the position in high school.

"Honestly, it's not hard because I've been in that position before," he said. "It's just (a matter of) me just trying to get to know the playbook well enough so that I can hand the ball to Bryce (Brown) or whoever's in the backfield and we'll make a big play out of it."

Although Richardson is a natural athlete with incredible skills, not everything comes easily for the Pahokee (Fla.) native. He has faced a steep learning curve this preseason.

"It's definitely been tough for me coming in from high school - learning the plays, getting comfortable with myself, trying to be a playmaker and help the team out," he said.

Still, he's right where he expected to be. On the recruiting trail last winter head coach Lane Kiffin promised him the chance to compete for a starting job. Obviously, that promise is being kept.

"Kiffin said he was going to give all of his freshman the opportunity to come in and play right away," Richardson noted. "I believed every word of it. As you all can see, all of the freshman are playing and doing very well."

Especially the Florida Flash from Pahokee. If he can just stop muffing punts ... well, he could become really famous really soon.

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