'Incredible commitment'

The question before Derek Dooley was this: How important for a team that's not blessed with overwhelming talent on offense and defense is it for the special teams to be sort of an equalizer?

Grinning playfully as he faced the reporter, Tennessee's head man responded with a question of his own: "Is that a hypothetical or are you saying our team doesn't have talent?"

Assured that the question was purely hypothetical - even though it wasn't - Dooley offered this assessment:

"I think it's important whether you have talent or not to be good on special teams. I think it's the difference in three or four ballgames every year. It doesn't matter what our level of talent is; there's going to be an incredible commitment to (special) teams.

"If you're a 7-5 team, maybe you win nine (with good special-teams play). If you're a 9-3 team, maybe you win 'em all. If you're a 9-3 team and you're not good on special teams, maybe you only win six. It's a difference."

As fans are acutely aware, Tennessee's special-teams play has been lousy in recent years. Last fall, for instance, the 2009 Vols placed ninth among the 12 SEC teams in net punting (34.4 yards), 11th in net kickoff coverage (39.2 yards) and dead last in field-goal percentage (61.9).

The outlook for 2010 brightened a bit when three punters averaged at least 44 yards each last Tuesday in the first fall scrimmage. The field-goal kicking has been disappointing, however. Incumbent Daniel Lincoln missed from 41 and 37 yards Saturday night in scrimmage No. 2 before connecting from 37 and 30. Freshman Michael Palardy hit from 39 yards, then missed from 31, was blocked from 32 and missed from 47. Lincoln stands 3 for 5 in the two scrimmages, Palardy 1 for 6 with two blocked kicks.

Asked to assess the special-teams play thus far, Dooley replied: "It's hard to say right now. We're still in the early stages of drilling, technique and basic schemes. I feel like the players are improving. I feel like they're starting to understand the expectations.

"The specialists didn't have as good a day last scrimmage as they did before. I think we're showing improvement but we're a long way away."

Although he has struggled with his field-goal kicking thus far, Palardy is considered a special talent who may be capable of handling the punting, placement and kickoff duties. Some coaches are reluctant to let one player handle all three chores for fear of overtaxing him. Asked where he stands on that issue, Dooley paused thoughtfully before responding.

"I've never really seen somebody do it," he said. "Palardy certainly has the ability. We'll find out in time. It's a lot of work on your leg and it's a lot of work on your mind. He's certainly got the ability, though."

Tennessee devoted a good portion of Monday's workout to kickoff returns. Sophomore tailback David Oku and senior wideout Denarius Moore worked with the first unit. Also fielding kicks were redshirt freshman defensive back Eric Gordon, sophomore safety Janzen Jackson, junior tailback Tauren Poole, freshman receiver Da' Rick Rogers, senior receiver Gerald Jones and freshman tailback Rajion Neal.

"Oku and Denarius are kind of the top two returners right now," Dooley said. "We have off (secondary) returners, so Gerald and Eric Gordon are back there at the off returner spot."

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