UT's special-teams woe

Except for the occasional punter or place-kicker, college football coaches don't recruit special-teams players. At least, they don't KNOWINGLY recruit special-teams players.

In a way, though, almost every prospect a coach signs is a potential special-teams player. If the prospect doesn't win a first-team job at a regular scrimmage position - sometimes even if he does - he probably will spend time contributing in some phase of special-teams play.

That's a point Tennessee fans should consider, especially fans who have been asking the same question for the past several years: "Why are the Vols so bad on special teams?"

The obvious answer is recruiting. The more good players you have on your roster, the more good players you have available for your kick/punt coverage and kick/punt return teams.

It's no secret that Tennessee's recruiting slipped a bit during the final years of Phillip Fulmer's tenure as head coach. This slippage resulted in fewer big-play performers on offense and fewer dynamic playmakers on defense. Few people realized it at the time, but it also resulted in fewer quality reserves to handle special-teams chores.

As current UT head coach Lane Kiffin noted this week: "Special teams will always have to do with the bottom of your recruiting classes."

Tennessee signed a top-10 recruiting class in 2009 and is headed for another one in 2010. Although the new recruits should upgrade the Vols' talent level on offense and defense, they also will provide more capable bodies for special-teams play.

"We have to continue to recruit great depth," Kiffin said. "If you start missing on five or six guys every year, four classes is 24 guys that maybe can't play (a position) at this level."

If those 24 guys aren't good enough to help on special teams, either, a team finds itself having to overtax some of its first-team position players by also making them contribute on special teams - as Tennessee is doing this fall.

Eddie Gran, who coordinates special teams for the Vols, enjoyed tremendous success in that capacity during 10 years at Auburn. He is not the problem with Tennessee's special teams. Getting capable players in the right roles is the problem, and addressing that problem remains an ongoing challenge for this staff.

It seems that each time the coaches put out one special-teams fire, another blaze erupts. For instance, after upgrading kickoff coverage that was truly abysmal in September, Tennessee had two field goals blocked in last weekend's 12-10 loss to Alabama.

"We're not very good in special teams; I don't think that's a surprise to anybody, and it's killing us," Kiffin conceded. "We've got to continue to find ways (to improve). We keep moving people around and we're going to make some changes this week in field-goal protection."


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