Not So Special

Why canâ't the Vols figure out how to cover kick-offs?

Sports

by Tony Basilo Search me why people keep saying Tennessee needs a special-teams coach. I donâ’t know what the critics expect. Tennessee is ranked 115 out of 119 teams when covering punts and kick-offs are combined so far through two games in â‘07. Last year they were 116 out of 119 in kick-off returns. First it was returning, now itâ’s covering kicks. The Vols are a real kick on special teams. You have to love it. A school that has so much firepower in recruiting and a bevy of overall speed canâ’t get out of its own way when it comes to returning and covering kicks. They are flat out unwatchable.

A couple of years ago, no less than seven coaches had a hand in Tennesseeâ’s special teams. Yet they were abysmal. Last year it was David Cutcliffe and Trooper Taylor. Abysmal again. This year itâ’s mostly Trooper Taylorâ’s show. How about some innovation? How about some new ideas? How about looking to your past and thus finding your future?

Phillip Fulmer bristled and scoffed when the subject of his kick-off return team was constantly brought up by fans and media alike in the off-season. Idealistically, Fulmer would talk about how UT was a â“flag or two and a block or two away from having much better numbersâ” than the 116 out of 119 in kick-off returns would indicate. Return teams have never been a hallmark of Fulmer teams. Even in the glory years of the â‘90s, Tennessee wasnâ’t nearly as prolific and productive as they should have been.

But this decade has gone from bad to worse. This isnâ’t only about the return game. Tennessee is one of a few teams of the schools who shoot for elite status to have surrendered a punt return for a TD in each of the last three seasons. Tennessee made sure of that by mimicking the â‘70s boyhood staple electric football in the Cal game. It appeared 7 of the 11 guys assigned to tackle DeSean Jackson were doing the Hokey-Pokey at the Cal 35 yard line. It was both a highlight and a lowlight for the Vols. It assures them of being in every package of the most spectacular plays of â’07, and it highlights the need for a homecoming for a home boy.

By now you know that Appalachian State defeated Michigan to open the season. You probably also know that Michigan is off to the kind of start that has those in automotive country equating Lloyd Carrâ’s tenure to that of the Edsel. What you may not know is that a former Vol was an integral part of the upset that will ultimately send Carr off the cliff. Former Vol Dale Jones has been at Appalachian State for over 10 years. During much of that time, Jones has been a special-teams coach while also coaching defensive positions, from secondary to defensive line to his current responsibilities of linebacker. That was Coach Dale Jonesâ’ special teams who preserved the all-time greatest upset in the history of modern day major college football with a textbook blocked kick to save the game for Appy State.

The success against Michigan was no fluke. A two-time defending National Champion in 1-AA football, Appy is known for its sound special teams. So much so that Jones was given the prestigious Special Teams Coach Of The Year Award from American Football Monthly in â‘02. Make no mistake, Jones flat knows what heâ’s doing on special teams. At the same time, Tennessee doesnâ’t have a clue. Watch Vols cover kicks or try to return them and draw your own conclusions.

The General must be turning in his grave. Every time the Vols take the field they are virtually surrendering close to 1/3 of the game. Back in the â‘90s the luxury was there to do that. This is a different day and Tennessee must respond accordingly. â“I would love to come back home someday. You know I love Tennessee,â” Jones said during a recent appearance on my radio program. Bring Dale Jones home now!

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