Vol ST outlook

Eddie Gran joined Tennessee's football staff last year with a reputation as a special-teams guru, based on overwhelming success at Auburn. Even Gran couldn't lift the Vols out of their long-standing special teams doldrums, however.

Despite modest improvement in a few areas, the numbers Big Orange special teams posted in 2009 were typically mediocre by Southeastern Conference standards. Here they are. Read 'em and weep:

- Sixth among the 12 SEC teams in kickoff-return average at 23.8 yards.

- Sixth in punt-return average at 9.3 yards.

- Ninth in net punting at 34.6 yards.

- Eleventh in kickoff coverage at 39.0 net yards.

- Dead last in field-goal kicking at 61.9 percent (13 of 21).

Ultimately, the only thing the Vols did well was kick extra points. They made 46 of 47, finishing fifth in the league with a 97.9 percent success rate.

For years many UT fans blamed the special-teams woes on the fact head man Phillip Fulmer divided the job of overseeing them among six aides. When Lane Kiffin came along last year and tabbed Gran special-teams coordinator, these fans assumed there would be significant improvement. There wasn't.

Now that Kiffin and Gran are gone, new head coach Derek Dooley is promising a major emphasis on the kicking game under new special-teams coordinator Eric Russell.

Like Gran, Russell brings some solid credentials. He spent the 2009 season at Texas Tech, where the Red Raiders ranked third among Big 12 teams in kickoff returns and kickoff coverage. Freshman Eric Stephens placed second among Big 12 kickoff return men with a 25.7-yard average.

Prior to Lubbock, Russell served two years (2007 and 2008) under Dooley at Louisiana Tech. The '07 Bulldogs ranked eighth nationally in punt returns, 26th in kickoff returns and 27th in net punting (out of 119 FBS schools).

Louisiana Tech blocked five punts during Russell's two-year stint there. Prior to that, he spent 13 years at North Texas, including five coordinating special teams. Those five years saw the Mean Green block 14 punts, including seven during the 2003 season.

Can Russell succeed where Gran failed? That's anyone's guess because there are too many variables in play.

For instance:

Senior Daniel Lincoln returns as UT's first-team kicker after making 10 of 16 field goal tries (just 1 of 6 between 40 and 49 yards) but he'll be challenged by incoming freshman Michael Palardy, rated America's No. 1 kicking prospect by Scout.com.

Senior Chad Cunningham returns as the first-team punter after averaging 42.1 yards last fall but he, too, must fend off the rocket-legged Palardy.

Sophomore David Oku is back for another season as the primary kickoff return man after averaging 26.2 yards last fall, a figure that ranked seventh among all SEC players.

Both of the Vols' 2009 punt-return specialists - Dennis Rogan and Nu'Keese Richardson - have departed. Richardson averaged 11.0 yards on six returns, Rogan 7.7 on six returns. The heir-apparent is sophomore safety Janzen Jackson, who is an unknown quantity at this point.

Position outlook: Muddled.


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