Best of the decade: punt returners

This is the 17th in a series of articles ranking Tennessee's best players of the decade 2000-2009. Today's focus: Punt returners.

1. MARK JONES: A bright spot in an otherwise undistinguished decade, Jones averaged a pedestrian 8.2 yards on 26 returns as a junior, then blossomed as a senior in 2003. The 5-9, 180-pounder hauled back a punt 58 yards for a touchdown vs. Vanderbilt, bumping his season's average to 15.1 yards. That's the highest mark by a Vol since George Canale averaged 17.6 yards on 10 returns in 1960. Jones, who averaged 11.8 yards on 46 career returns, exhibited very sure hands and a knack for squeezing the most yards possible out of each return. That, plus the ability to fill in at receiver and safety, has enabled him to make a good living in the National Football League the past six years.

2. ERIC PARKER: Quick and elusive, Parker bounced back after averaging just 6.8 yards on 18 returns in 1998 to average 9.4 yards in '99 and 10.1 in 2000. He returned just 13 punts for 59 yards in an injury-plagued senior season. Parker's career-best was a 69-yard touchdown return vs. Memphis in '99. After averaging 8.7 yards on 107 runbacks at UT, he went on to play six seasons as a wideout/return specialist for the NFL's San Diego Chargers.

3. JONATHAN HEFNEY: After averaging a mediocre 5.0 yards on 23 returns as a freshman in 2004, he improved to 11.5 yards in '05 and 12.1 in '06. The 5-9, 190-pounder's confidence abandoned him as a senior, however, and he surrendered the first-team duties to Dennis Rogan after averaging a paltry 6.4 yards on 14 runbacks. Hefney finished with a career average of 8.3 yards.

4. RASHAD BAKER: He was the No. 1 guy for just one season (averaging 9.1 yards on 26 runbacks as a sophomore in 2001), but Baker shared the punt-return duties in each of his other three seasons. The 5-11, 190-pounder averaged a paltry 4.3 yards on 13 returns as a freshman but checked in at 10.8 on 12 returns as a junior and 11.1 on 11 returns as a senior. For his career Baker averaged 8.8 yards on 62 runbacks.

5A. GERALD JONES: He showed excellent potential by averaging 10.0 yards on 15 punt returns as a sophomore in 2008 but was not used on special teams in '09 to avoid aggravating a high-ankle sprain suffered in preseason drills. Though fully recovered, the 6-0, 190-pounder is not listed among Tennessee's top two punt-return options heading into his senior season of 2010. Perhaps that's a concession to his value as the No. 1 wide receiver.

5B. DENNIS ROGAN: This Knoxville native got off to a fine start, averaging 9.7 yards on 17 returns as a freshman in 2007. The 5-9, 185-pounder lost his mojo, however, averaging just 4.8 yards on 13 returns in '08 and 7.7 yards as a junior in '09. Also a starting cornerback, he elected to forgo his senior season in favor of the NFL Draft, but was not selected. Rogan averaged 7.6 yards on 36 punt returns for his college career.

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