Halfway home (special teams)

Now that Tennessee's 12-game regular season has reached the halfway point, it's time to assess where the Vols stand. After grading the offense and defense on a position-by-position basis, all that remains is special teams (Sorry, I put it off as long as I could).

Here are the ratings on the standard 1-10 scale. Read 'em and weep:

KICKOFF COVERAGE: Tennessee is allowing an average of 28.0 yards per kickoff return, a figure that ranks No. 117 nationally among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Moreover, UT's net kickoff average (kickoff distance minus return yards) of 36.7 ranks dead last among the 12 SEC teams. The Vols allowed a 95-yard touchdown return by Ohio U's Chris Garrett in Game 4 and a 100-yard TD return by Georgia's Brandon Boykin in Game 6. Florida's Brandon James burned the Big Orange for a 50-yard return of the opening kickoff in Game 3 and Auburn's Onterio McCalebb finished the Vols with a late 52-yarder in Game 5. Rating: 1.0 ... only because that's the lowest grade I can give

PUNT COVERAGE: Believe it or not, in a category called "punt return defense" Tennessee ranks in the NCAA's top 50 percent ... barely. The Vols have allowed 86 yards on 10 returns, an 8.6 average that places them 58th nationally among 120 programs. Chad Cunningham is fourth among SEC punters with a gross average of 41.8 but Tennessee ranks sixth in the league and 75th nationally in net punting (punt yardage minus return yardage) at 34.8. For the sake of comparison, Georgia leads the SEC in net punting at 44.0 - more than nine yards ahead of the Vols. Rating: 4.5

KICKOFF RETURNS: The Big Orange ranks 11th in the SEC and 60th nationally in this category at 21.8 yards per runback. League-leading Florida is 11.0 yards per kick better at 32.8. Tennessee's Nu'keese Richardson is averaging 22.0 yards on 10 returns and fellow freshman David Oku is averaging 21.0. Junior Dennis Rogan is averaging 26.0 but has just two returns to his credit. Tennessee's season-best return of 37 yards was posted by Richardson last Saturday vs. Georgia, so maybe the Vols are beginning to improve in this crucial area. Rating: 3.5

PUNT RETURNS: The Big Orange ranks sixth in the SEC and 70th nationally with an average of 8.4 yards per return. That's barely half the average of league-leading Alabama (16.1). Richardson is averaging 11.0 yards on six returns. Rogan has just two returns all season - one for 5 yards and one for minus-4. A key here is all of the yardage Tennessee has lost by letting opposing punts bounce. This mistake doesn't show up statistically but has cost the Vols 100 or more yards of field position this fall. Rating: 2.5

PLACEKICKING: Daniel Lincoln has connected on 8 of 10 field-goal tries, with a long of 49 yards. His misses came from 39 and 46 yards. His 80-percent success rate places him eighth among SEC kickers but that's deceiving. Good weather and chip-shot attempts have inflated most kickers' early-season percentages. If Lincoln can finish the season at 80 percent Tennessee's coaches no doubt will be thrilled. Rating: 9.0


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