Kicking game looms large

Kicking game looms large

Tennessee's kickoff returns in 2006 couldn't have been much worse but the other phases of Vol special teams couldn't have been much better. That bodes well for the Big Orange heading into Monday's Outback Bowl game with Penn State.

Place-kicker James Wilhoit led the Southeastern Conference in field-goal accuracy by hitting 17 of 20 for 85.0 percent. Wilhoit hit a season best 51-yarder against Florida, matching his career long.

The Vol senior also led the SEC in kick scoring. In addition to his 17 field goals, he nailed 41 of 42 point-after conversions. That gave him 92 points, an average of 7.7 per game. Auburn's John Vaughn was second with 89 points and a 7.4 average.

Moreover, Wilhoit did an outstanding job on kickoffs. Better than half of his kicks (36 of 71) resulted in touchbacks.

Sophomore punter Britton Colquitt was outstanding, too. He led the SEC and ranked No. 8 nationally with a 45.0-yard average. Florida's Eric Wilbur was a distant second at 42.2.

Colquitt put 16 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line (with just four touchbacks) and had eight of his kicks fair-caught. Thanks to his booming punts, Tennessee ranked third in the SEC and 16th nationally in net punting at 37.5 yards per kick.

No wonder head coach Phillip Fulmer recently noted: "We are very blessed to have two of the best guys in the country, in my opinion, in Britton Colquitt and James Wilhoit."

Tennessee also got solid play from its kickoff coverage unit. The Vols ranked third among SEC teams in net kickoff average at 43.2 yards. Basically, this means UT foes' average starting field position was their own 22-yard line.

The Vols also distinguished themselves on punt returns. Hefney averaged 12.8 yards per runback, which ranked third among SEC return specialists.

Now for the bad news:

- Tennessee allowed its 12 regular-season opponents to average 5.4 yards per punt return. Only South Carolina (6.3 yards) and Mississippi State (6.2 yards) were less efficient covering punts.

- Tennessee ranked dead last among the 12 SEC teams and next-to-last nationally (118th) in kickoff returns. The Vols averaged a meager 15.9 yards per runback.

"We got a lot better at special teams during the course of the year," Fulmer said. "One area that we haven't is the kickoff return, and we're going to address that like heck."

Since the Vols (9-3) and Nittany Lions (8-4) appear evenly matched, the outcome of Monday's game may well be decided by special-teams play.

"We surely know that will be a key during the football game," Fulmer said. "If we'll continue to give the kind of effort in practice that we have and take the attitude that we've had, we'll be all right."

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