Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press UT coach Derek Dooley watches his team practice before the game against Ole Miss at Neyland Stadium.
KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley likes to joke.
Considering the way Tennessee's punt return game has performed this season, with seven muffed catches or fumbled returns through 11 games, the Volunteers' first-year head coach can either laugh, cuss or cry.
Publicly, he laughs.
"They're allowed to fair catch it if their blocking isn't there. There's a new rule they put in," Dooley said. "I told our guys if there's a guy in your face, they're going to allow you to stick your hand up and they won't hit you.
"Janzen [Jackson] didn't know that. I'm just kidding."
Laughs aside, UT's punt return game has been a joke. The Vols are ranked 110th our of 120 FBS with an average of 3.65 yards per return.
And, as previously mentioned, they've muffed or fumbled seven of them.
"Have we set the [national] record? We have to have shattered it," Dooley said. "Can we look it up? If not, just invent the record.
"Guys, I'm sorry, man. I'm embarrassed. I really am. I don't know what to do. I'll take any suggestions."
Tight ends and special teams coach Erik Russell said he's "never" seen a team struggle so mightily to simply catch punts.
"It's very frustrating," Russell said. "You try to build a plan, but it's hard to have confidence in your plan if you are more worried about fielding a ball and some things like that. It makes you question how you are coaching things. It's hard to build continuity and confidence, and now it doesn't matter who you put back there, I think the first thing in their mind is, 'Don't drop it.'
"We've tried to stay away from that type of coaching. You get to a Saturday, [and] it's embarrassing to go out there and not put anybody back. But you've got to do the smart thing for the organization, too, so it has been frustrating."
Junior cornerback Anthony Anderson, the latest to lose the handle, took his first turn in Saturday's win at Vanderbilt. Two sailed over his head, he returned one off a bounce in traffic for 1 yard, he fumbled and lost one after a minimal return and then successfully fair caught one -- which drew a loud Bronx cheer from the UT fans who took over Vanderbilt Stadium.
Still, Dooley said Anderson will return punts against Kentucky "unless he has a couple of bad days" in practice this week.
"He'll be fine," Dooley said. "He's 1-for-1 in catching the ball. No ... wait ... he's 2-for-2. But he's 0-for-1 in returning the ball and maintaining possession."
Anderson is actually 1-for-2 in that last category, but not really. Returners are taught to run away from punts that have hit the ground, and he picked one up off a bounce.
"Coach Dooley just kind of laughed and said, 'At least you didn't fumble it,'" Anderson said. "But it still wasn't a very smart decision. I know better than that."
Dooley's last-ditch option is still a possibility against the Wildcats, too. He elected not to drop anyone deep for fourth-quarter punts by Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
"We still have that in, in case we need it," Dooley said. "We might do it the whole game [this] week. Against Kentucky, whew, field position's going to be tough."
Dooley laughed again when a reporter asked him if he'd used the no-returner return more than usual this season.
"I've never used it until this year," he said. "You kidding me? I've never used it."
Compounding UT's problem is the unavoidable fact that the Southeastern Conference is quite solid at returning punts, aside from the Vols and 115th-place South Carolina's even-worse 3 yards per return.
Arkansas is fourth nationally with 18.31 yards per return. LSU is ninth with 14.4, Alabama is 10th with 14.22 and Ole Miss is 14th with 13.65. Georgia (30th), Mississippi State (49th) and Florida (52nd) are in the solid-to-decent range, while Saturday opponent Kentucky is 78th with 7.04 yards per return.
UT's season-opening opponent, Oregon, leads major college football with a staggering 20.73 yards per return and five scores.
"A big return can change a game just like that," Anderson said. "Everybody wants to be that guy that breaks the big one, but you've at least got to be smart and make sure you keep the ball."
This and that
Senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, senior tight end Luke Stocker and junior tailback Tauren Poole were voted earlier this week UT's captains for the season. Dooley said voting for team captains when players have proven their worth, means more than voting for them in the preseason. The Vols used rotating game captains to this point. ... Dooley hinted that senior punter Chad Cunningham, not true freshman kicker Michael Palardy, would handle kickoffs this week. Depth has been a problem for Palardy on some kickoffs, but UT is still seventh nationally in kick return defense.