Happy days are here again

He's returning punts again. He's beaming again. And that's no coincidence for one University of Tennessee football player.

The player in question is senior wide receiver Gerald Jones. He exhibited exceptional abilities on returns as a sophomore in 2008, averaging a whopping 38.3 yards on three kickoff returns and a solid 10.0 yards on 15 punt returns.

Jones expected to handle return duties again in 2009 but that was not the case. Head coach Lane Kiffin handed those to heralded freshman Nu'Keese Richardson. Although Richardson struggled to field the ball and follow blocks, he continued to handle returns until he was dismissed from the team nine games into the season.

Now that both Kiffin and Richardson are gone, Gerald Jones has reclaimed his role on special teams. He's scheduled to be the punt-return man in Tennessee's Sept. 4 opener vs. UT Martin ... and he couldn't be happier about it.

"I'm feeling good, man. I'm excited about that," he said following Friday's practice. "I finally get to get back out there."

Although he hasn't returned kicks in more than a year, Jones believes he'll be better at it in 2010 than he was in 2008. That's because he lost some weight and gained some quickness in the interim.

"Last time I was back there - my sophomore year - I was about 205 or 210; I was fat and slow," he said. "I'm a little faster now, so I can't wait to see what I can do out there."

Now checking in at an even 200 pounds, Jones believes a lighter body and lighter shoes will give him an edge he didn't have in 2008.

"I'm a little leaner, and my cleats ain't heavy like they was my sophomore year," he said. "We wore these big ol' cleats. We finally got some low-tops, and I'm moving faster."

Several players say Tennessee is devoting much more practice time to special-teams preparation under Eric Russell, who molded exceptional kicking games at Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech before joining the UT staff last winter. Jones confirmed as much.

"Oh, yeah. Most definitely," he said. "They take special teams seriously. It proves why they do. We've seen so many clips on La Tech and Texas Tech, and you win games with special teams."

Jones said those clips show Louisiana Tech and Texas Tech breaking several long punt and kickoff return, with a few producing touchdowns.

"I haven't seen a punt return or kickoff return (for touchdown) here since I've been here," Jones said. "So it'll help."

Having a return man who can catch the ball and follow blocks will help, too.

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