Kiffin OK with kicking game

Kiffin OK with kicking game

If Tennessee is to improve significantly on last season's 5-7 record, it must improve significantly on special teams. Fortunately for the Vols, that won't be difficult to accomplish.

Special teams cost Tennessee dearly last fall. The Big Orange ranked dead last among the 12 SEC teams in field-goal percentage (52.6 on a 10-of-19 success rate) and 10th in net punting (34.9 yards per kick). The Vols were ninth in punt-return average (7.6 yards) and eighth in net kickoff coverage (41.4 yards).

Tennessee excelled in just two phases of special-teams play last fall. The Vols finished third among SEC teams in kickoff returns (23.6 yards per runback) and tied for first in PAT percentage (100 percent, 22 of 22).

After devoting several segments of Saturday's full-scale scrimmage to the kicking game, new head coach Lane Kiffin seemed pleased with the work of punter Chad Cunningham and kicker Daniel Lincoln.

"Our kicking game continues to look great, as far as punters and kickers," he said. "We didn't get many chances on field goals today but they've both improved a lot."

Lincoln, who made just 10 of 18 field-goal tries last fall, was a perfect 3 for 3 on Saturday - hitting from 23, 40 and 47 yards.

Cunningham, who ranked 10th among SEC punters with a 39.5-yard average last fall, rallied from a slow start to boom a 49-yarder on his final attempt of the day. Backup David Harrington, impressive earlier in the week, had a mediocre outing on Saturday. He had a 35-yarder, a 33-yarder and a punt that was blocked and returned 30 yards for a touchdown by walk-on safety Tyler Wolf. Harrington also had a punt blocked in Thursday's practice.

In addition to being the No.1 punter, Cunningham appears likely to be the No. 1 kickoff specialist. His Saturday kickoffs carried to the 6-yard line, the 9-yard line and the 4-yard line. Lincoln's kicks were fielded at the 16, the 20 and the 8.

Tennessee's kickoff coverage was very good, with one notable exception. Marsalis Teague had returns of just 11 and 14 yards. Fellow freshmen Nu'Keese Richardson (16 yards) and Zach Rogers (11 yards) had modest returns, as well. Junior Dennis Rogan, who ranked second among SEC players with a 24.9-yard average last fall, managed a 20-yarder. Lincoln's final kickoff, however, was returned 72 yards by freshman Mike Edwards.

The Vols' punt-return work was a bit erratic, as well. Rogan had returns of 6 and 21 yards. Richardson had returns of 8 and 24 yards but also muffed a punt.

Asked if Richardson's mishap concerned him, Kiffin replied, "Sure, it does. That's a major concern. Any time you have young guys in the return game, it's always a fear because it is such a big play. That's why we gave them some live ones.

"A lot of times you go through camp and you never go live on returners, and then that would've happened two weeks from today (in the season opener vs. Western Kentucky). Hopefully, we're working through it."

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