That could be a pipe dream, however, since Tennessee’s special-teams play in
2005 barely qualified as mediocre.
The Vols were fifth among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in punt returns
(8.4 yards per runback) and eighth in kickoff returns (19.8 yards per runback).
They were seventh in net punting (33.5 yards) and fourth in field goal
percentage (14 of 19 for 73.7). They were 10th in punt coverage, allowing
opponents to average 5.6 yards per runback.
The only two special-teams areas in which Tennessee distinguished itself in 2005
was kicking conversions and covering kickoffs. James Wilhoit nailed 100 percent
of his 21 extra-point attempts, helping the Vols tie for first place among SEC
teams in that category. Meanwhile, the coverage unit averaged 44.3 net yards on
kickoffs. In other words, if UT kicked from the 35-yard line, the average return
would be to the 21-yard line.
How much progress Tennessee can make in terms of special-teams play for 2006 is
debatable. Wilhoit returns for his senior year as the placement specialist, so
the field-goal and extra-point percentages should be strong again. His booming
kickoffs should ensure another year of quality kick coverage, as well.
Beyond that, however, there are some question marks. Britton Colquitt averaged
41.2 yards per punt as a freshman last fall but must improve his hang time and
directional kicking, so his punts will be easier to cover.
As for the shortcomings in the return game, those have been perplexing Volunteer
fans for several years. Tennessee’s roster routinely is filled with guys who
were heralded high school tailbacks, receivers and cornerbacks, yet the Vols
seem incapable of finding anyone dynamic enough to change field position by
breaking an occasional punt return or kickoff return.
Defensive back Jonathan Hefney showed great promise as a punt return specialist
early in 2004 but eventually lost the job due to fumbling problems. He came on
late last fall to reclaim the job, however, and finished with an 11.5
yards-per-return average. He’s backed by Lucas Taylor, a reserve receiver who
averaged just 6.2 yards on 13 returns last year.
Taylor is the odds-on favorite to handle the kickoff return chores. Fielding 19
kickoffs last fall, he averaged 22.5 yards per runback with a long of 47. He’s a
5-10, 168-pounder with good speed and electrifying moves.