published Thursday, September 17th, 2009

No returns policy for UT


by Wes Rucker

KNOXVILLE -- The University of Florida has a roster full of physically-imposing football players.

Brandon James, listed at 5-foot-7, 185 pounds, is not one of them.

Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger Tennessee killer.

James has found the end zone as a punt return specialist in all three career appearances against the Volunteers. A touchdown was nullified via penalty his true freshman season in 2006, but scores from 83 and 78 yards have stood the past two seasons.

The senior hopes to extend that streak Saturday in the Swamp.

James just hopes the Volunteers will let him touch the ball. They weren't supposed to the past two seasons, either, but directional punts were mis-hit into his tiny mitts.

"They got a new coach and a new system, so hopefully they'll be willing to try it," James said earlier this week. "I just hope they come out and give us a chance."

James has a chance to make Southeastern Conference history Saturday. At 3,246, he's just 109 yards short of former Kentucky star Derek Abney's special teams return yardage record.

Given recent history, James seemingly has at least a puncher's chance to pass Abney with just a few touches against UT -- which he admits, without hesitation, is his favorite opponent.

"It's the first real SEC test and a real big rivalry, so of course you're coming into the game pumped up and everything," said James.

Whatever James' approach has been, it's worked. Two of his five career scores have come against the Vols -- and it would be 3-for-6, if not for that illegal block infraction in 2006.

"Obviously, he's done well against us," UT junior kicker Daniel Lincoln said. "I know we hate being on ESPN and always being on his highlight reel, watching him return touchdowns against us."

Lincoln half-jokingly wondered aloud if national sports media had ever shown a James highlight that didn't involve UT.

"Every time they talk about Florida's big plays, they just love to talk about him," Lincoln said. "And every time they talk about Brandon, that's on there. They rerun that on ESPN all the time, so those images are always on your mind.

"You don't ever go numb to it, because that's your team on there getting scored on. You always remember how you felt when it was going on during the game, and all the emotions that come along with that."

UT special teams overseer Eddie Gran echoed the thoughts of many coaches by claiming that "few things can change the course of a football game more than a special teams touchdown.

"They can change the entire complexion of a game, just like that," said Gran, a noted special teams, running back and recruiting guru who arrived in Knoxville this winter after a long stint at Auburn. "That's why special teams are so important."

Florida probably would have topped UT the past two years without James' touchdown, but both were clearly tone-setters.

James' touchdown last season gave the Gators a 17-0 lead late in the first quarter and nearly silenced Neyland Stadium.

Conversely, the Swamp erupted after his sophomore-season score gave Florida a 7-0, first-quarter advantage.

All-America junior safety Eric Berry said containing James has been a "big emphasis" all week but that the Vols aren't spending much more time than normal on that phase of the game.

"The good thing is that's the been an emphasis since camp, not giving up punt returns," said Berry, who starts on the kickoff team and could be used in some punt-team situations. "You can look out there and see a number of starters out there on kickoff and punt coverage and all those things."

Lincoln said the Vols have designed "some good things scheme-wise and have full confidence in what we're doing to counter what (James') skills are."

First-year UT coach Lane Kiffin not-so-subtly hinted that the best course of action might be avoiding James as much as possible.

"He's such a dynamic player," Kiffin said. "Every time he touches the ball, there's a big fear factor of him going all the way, as he's done against Tennessee before. There's a big challenge to try and contain him.

"Obviously, we've worked a lot on kicking the ball out of bounds this week."

Kiffin doesn't always prefer that philosophy. His Oakland Raiders were one of the few NFL team who punted to Chicago Bears All-Pro return specialist Devin Hester.

"We did a phenomenal job of covering (Hester)," Kiffin said. "At that point, no one was kicking to him, and we just kind of made a deal that week that we were going to do it.

"Now, we had the best punter in the history of football in Shane Lechler, so that had a lot to do with it."

Kiffin probably doesn't have similar confidence in UT junior Chad Cunningham, who was asked to punt away from James last season but didn't. And Kiffin said James was the closest player to Hester in college or pro football.

"Like I've said, we have definitely worked on kicking the ball out of bounds this week," Kiffin said.

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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