Many unhappy returns

Football is still a game of field position, although Tennessee's kickoff team seems to have forgotten that.

The Vols rank dead last among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in kickoff coverage at 36.5 net yards per kick. That means the average starting field position for their first five opponents was the 34-yard line. For the sake of comparison, Florida leads the SEC at 48.2 net yards, meaning Gator foes typically start at their 22-yard line.

Two factors make UT's kick-covering futility especially puzzling:

1. The Vols utilize a lot of starters on kick coverage to make sure they have their best tacklers on the field.

2. Highly regarded Eddie Gran oversees Vol special teams. He performed the same duties last fall at Auburn, which ranked fourth among SEC teams in kickoff coverage at 44.6 net yards.

Regardless, Tennessee's kickoff coverage this fall has been dismal. In Saturday night's 26-22 loss to Auburn, the Vols averaged a pitiful 24 net yards on four kickoffs. Their average kickoff carried 59 yards, meaning it came down at the Tigers' 11-yard line. Auburn's average return was 35 yards, meaning its typical starting position was the Tiger 46-yard line. Thus, Auburn's average possession began just 54 yards from a touchdown and a mere 24 yards from field-goal range.

Given all of the above, it isn't surprising that the kill shot of Saturday night's game was a 52-yard Auburn kickoff return with just over 4:00 left.

Although UT's kick-coverage woes were especially costly against Auburn, they have been an ongoing problem all season.

Here's a brief review:

Game 2: Chad Cunningham's opening kickoff goes out of bounds at the UCLA 22-yard line, giving the Bruins the ball at their 40-yard line to start the game. They take advantage of the short field to kick a field goal for a quick 3-0 lead.

Game 3: Tennessee allows Florida's Brandon James to return the opening kickoff 51 yards. Tack on a 15-yard face-mask penalty, and the Gators run their first offensive play from UT's 30-yard line. Thanks to some yeoman work by the Vol defense, Florida has to settle for a field goal.

Game 3: Tennessee allows James to return a second-quarter kickoff 29 yards to the Florida 37-yard line. The Gators boot another field goal just before halftime to take a 13-6 lead to the locker room.

Game 4: Tennessee goes up 7-0 on its opening possession, then allows Ohio University's Chris Garrett to return the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to tie the score.

Game 4: Tennessee's final kickoff carries to the 14-yard line, and Garrett returns it 28 yards to the Ohio 42-yard line. The Bobcats drive to the Vol 15-yard line only to miss a field goal with 2:08 left in a 34-23 loss.

Game 5: Ben Tate returns the second-half kickoff 35 yards to the Auburn 39-yard line but Tennessee's defense forces a three-and-out.

Game 5: Onterio McCalebb returns a fourth-quarter kickoff 38 yards to the Auburn 45-yard line but Tennessee's defense forces another three-and-out.

Game 5: Tennessee closes to 23-16 with 4:19 left but McCalebb returns the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to the Vol 39-yard line, setting up a game-clinching field goal.

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