KNOXVILLE -- Tabbing a true freshman to do anything can be a risky move.
Considering how poor the University of Tennessee's punt-return game was a year ago when the Volunteers went through five different players at the position, there's not much to risk with putting a first-year player in that difficult spot.
"It's always nerve-wracking to think you might go into that opener and his first snap might be catching a punt, especially with what's gone on around here," special-teams coordinator Eric Russell said Sunday.
"We're trying to avoid bringing all that stuff up. I don't know what kind of risk [a freshman] is simply in the fact that anybody that we have that would be returning has had their issues as well. I just think the situation we're in, we've got to evaluate throughout camp and go with the guy that's one, fielding the ball the cleanest, and two, been more consistent."
The Vols are down to three finalists at the spot: freshman tailbacks Marlin Lane and Tom Smith and senior cornerback Anthony Anderson. However, some poor punts in Saturday's scrimmage limited the amount of live work the Vols could give to their finalists.
"We're closer [to a decision]," coach Derek Dooley said Monday afternoon. "Those three have shown the most dependability doing it. We did some live [on Saturday], but what happened was the punter would stink it up every time we called a return so we couldn't return it. They were sabotaging the drill a little bit."
Anderson was one of the five returners the Vols tried last season while ranking 109th in the country at just 4.1 yards per return. The Vols struggled so much simply fielding the ball on occasion that Dooley wouldn't even put a returner back at times late in the season.
"Marlin and Tom are who we've pretty much predominantly been working," Russell said. "They're both natural, confident kids. Anthony Anderson, since he's done it and been there, we're still working him a little bit, but we also think he can help us on the front lines a little bit."
Corner of concern
The Vols are set at safety with Janzen Jackson and Brent Brewer, but Dooley said he's much less comfortable at cornerback, where Marsalis Teague, Justin Coleman and Izauea Lanier are battling it out along with Prentiss Waggner, who's also working at safety.
"Nobody is really screaming at us, 'I'm the corner based on how I play,'" Dooley said. "That's probably our biggest area that we're trying to figure out."
Junior college transfer Byron Moore is working at the nickelback spot in addition to corner and safety as the Vols shuffle around a handful of bodies in the secondary.
Dooley said tailback/receiver Rajion Neal, who missed Saturday's scrimmage with a knee injury will be out "another week." Smith, who had 80 yards on 10 carries Saturday is also out "a couple of days" with a hyperextended knee. Receiver Zach Rogers wore a sleeve on his right arm to help a swollen triceps that's taken a beating.
Freshman offensive tackle Antonio Richardson returned to full contact on Monday after shoulder surgery limited him the first two weeks of camp, and linebacker Daryl Vereen (pectoral) also practiced Monday. Linebacker Dontavis Sapp (fractured finger) could return in a few days.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...