KNOXVILLE — Gerald Jones was hurt last season when he didn’t return punts for the Tennessee football team.
“Not physically,” Jones clarified. “I was hurting emotionally.”
The senior wide receiver loves to return punts.
Punt returning requires that love because it’s not for everyone. The ball moves awkwardly and often is difficult to catch. Decisions must be made on whether to catch punts or let them bounce. Catching the ball usually happens at a complete stop with good athletes sprinting full speed at the returner. The hits hurt.
“I think you have to be born with it, because ... it’s kind of crazy,” Jones said. “But I guess I was just born with it, because I love it.”
Now it again loves him back. Jones, also a special-package quarterback, has been the Volunteers’ primary punt-return specialist for most of preseason camp and expects to hold down that role this season. He lost the spot last season for a few reasons, including nagging injuries.
Jones never has been the fastest receiver in a straight line, but his sure hands and quick hips and feet have translated reasonably well to the punt-return aspect. He took the job as a sophomore after defensive back Dennis Rogan went down with an injury, and he averaged 10 yards on 15 tries. Jones’ first return that season went 33 yards to the UCLA 26, and he added a 40-yarder at Auburn.
“There’s a big difference between kickoff return and punt return,” Jones said. “Punt return is for a guy who does well in space and knows how to make people miss, and guys like me who have a little wiggle to them. Kickoff return is more for speed, and I’m not really a speed guy. That’s more like for Denarius Moore or (David) Oku, somebody who can really hit that thing and hit that hole as soon as it opens up and split the defense.
“I’m more of a make-you-miss guy. I’m not a pure speed guy, obviously.”
Junior linebacker Austin Johnson, one of UT’s most dependable special-teams players, said the team had faith in Jones to succeed in the spot.
“I’m really happy to see him back there,” Johnson said. “I remember the Auburn game my freshman year, when he returned all those punts that helped us out a lot. I think it will be good to have him back there and making some big plays for us, because I know we need some big plays on special teams.”
Jones is backed up by sophomore tailback and kick-return specialist Oku, sophomore receiver Zach Rogers, sophomore safety Janzen Jackson and redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Gordon. Freshman receiver Justin Hunter — an atypical-looking punt returner at 6-foot-4 — also spent time back there before the NCAA Clearinghouse took him off the field.
“I’m so excited man,” Jones said. “It’s an adrenaline rush and it’s a lot of fun, but it also comes down to first and foremost making smart decisions, and I think I do that.”
Coach Derek Dooley concurred with rule No. 1 — catch the ball.
“It starts with ball security,” Dooley said. “And then, of course, No. 2 is his ability to make guys miss in space. It’s a natural gift. It really is. Now there’s a lot of technique associated with being a good returner as it relates to catching the ball, but you have natural ball-judge skills and natural elusive skills, and those cannot be taught.”
Dooley said he’s been “blessed” in the past with great return men. He coached at least one all-conference or all-pro return specialist with LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Louisiana Tech.
“But I don’t know what I have here,” Dooley said. “We’ll see.”
How about Jones?
“He’s been a dependable punt catcher, which is good,” Dooley said. “He’s also got good elusiveness, so we’ll see how far that will take him.”