Many happy returns

Today's lesson in irony: Sometimes you do something so well that you rarely get the chance to do it.

That was the case for Tennessee tailback David Oku during his days at Carl Albert High of Midwest City, Okla. Oku was so good at returning kickoffs that opponents refused to give him the opportunity.

"They never kicked me the ball in high school," he recalled this week. "I probably got two or three returns. Other than that, they never kicked me the ball.

"And my coach wouldn't let me return punts. We had another guy who did that."

It's hard to fault the coach on that one. Carl Albert's punt-return specialist Oku's senior year, Daytawion Lowe, averaged 19.3 yards per runback and now plays for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Given how little experience he got returning kicks in high school, Oku wasn't expecting to win the job as a Vol freshman last fall. But he did.

"It surprised me a lot," he recalled. "I really didn't know what to expect as a freshman. I just expected to come in and take the role I was given, line up in the slot sometimes and do reverses, things like that."

After averaging a modest 18.7 yards per return through last fall's first four games, Oku found his rhythm. He averaged 28.7 yards on three runbacks in Game 5 vs. Auburn, 30.0 on three returns in Game 6 vs. Alabama and 40.7 yards on three returns in Game 8 vs. Memphis (including a season-long 69-yarder).

Remarkably consistent down the stretch, Oku averaged 29.8 yards in Game 10 at Ole Miss, 28.0 in Game 11 vs. Vanderbilt and 27.7 in the Chick fil-A Bowl vs. Virginia Tech.

The 5-10, 195-pounder wound up breaking school records for single-season returns (33) and single-season return yards (863). His 26.2-yard average ranked 25th nationally and fourth among NCAA freshmen.

Being a quality return man, he says, is a simple matter.

"I think it's vision and experience," Oku said. "Last year I didn't have the experience of doing it. Having one year under my belt has really helped me gaining an edge."

He performed so well on kick returns last fall that he is getting additional special-teams opportunities this fall.

"Hard work does pay off," Oku said. "Winning that job has led to many opportunities with Coach (Derek) Dooley, as far as doing kick return and a lot more of the special teams."

In addition to added experience, Oku believes another factor will help make him a more productive return man in 2010 than he was in 2009. The Vols' return scheme is simpler this year.

As he explained: "I think what the coaches are doing is a lot easier than what we did last year."

Although he did an outstanding job on returns in 2009, Oku should be even better in 2010. If he improves too much, though, he just might be forced to relive his high school days back in Oklahoma City ... when opponents refused to kick the ball to him.


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