KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's mentality on special teams is changing, but it's not there yet.
The Volunteers will get a close-up look at a more finished product Saturday against 16th-ranked Florida in Gainesville.
Florida won two national championships in three years with talent on offense and defense, but the Gators also had the best special-teams units in the Southeastern Conference during that span. UT's special teams, meanwhile, had become an adventure, from poor coverage on kickoffs and punts to the inability even to field punts.
The Vols have invested much time on improving their special teams under coach Derek Dooley and coordinator Eric Russell, and while it's paid off already in some areas, there still are some spots that require a different mindset.
"I think there's still some areas where we haven't quite got that mentality yet of that we can be playmakers versus just get out there and survive the down," Russell said Wednesday. "I don't think in certain units we're good enough to go play with Florida and do things. In certain units, we're going to have to be at our best to compete with Florida.
"I wouldn't say we're where Florida's at. They've been the best in the SEC the last couple of years, and it shows. You see that their guys believe in it."
The Gators have dominated the special-teams battle against UT in winning the last six games in the series. Brandon James tormented the Vols on punt and kickoff returns for four years, and the Gators executed a momentum-swinging fake punt in last year's 31-17 win in Knoxville.
The offense fizzled for the Gators when they went 8-5 last season, but the special teams were still fantastic. Florida ranked second nationally in net punting, sixth nationally in kickoff-return yardage and fourth in the league in kickoff coverage. The Gators led the SEC for the fourth time in five years with four blocked kicks.
"They prey on the little breakdown, and they'll torch you on it," Dooley said. "But they do it in all phases. I think that has contributed to their success as much as anything over the last five years, and it's something nobody really talks about."
Speedy sophomore Andre Dubose has seven kickoff returns of 50 or more yards in 15 career games, and tailback Chris Rainey, who leads Florida in rushing and receiving this season, has blocked four punts in his career.
"They just believe in the playmaking mentality," Russell said. "Some of their top guys on their team will go in there and make a play for the team on special teams. They've got obviously tremendous speed in the back end, guys that can catch the ball and make some things happen. They've got a lot more depth in that area than we've got right now.
"It's still an ongoing process and it's going to be a heck of a test on Saturday, but we can't go in scared."
Dooley said the Vols have been "sound" in the kicking game in each of UT's first two games. Though the return game has yet to break a big play and the punting remains inconsistent, the solid coverage units have picked up where they left off last year, and kicker Michael Palardy has three touchbacks after the Vols kicked one all of last season.
In addition, the Vols have shown that playmaking mentality in their first two games. Anthony Anderson pounced on a muffed punt against Montana, and Palardy perfectly executed an onside kick to himself against Cincinnati. UT scored touchdowns off both plays.
"I don't want it to be 'survive the down,'" Russell said. "We've still got a bunch of young guys; we've still got a bunch of guys where this is their first snaps -- some of them it's the only snaps they're playing. [They've got] to just trigger, trust what they see and be able to pull the pin fast and react.
"It's still trust in the little details that we try to coach in practice, [but] I think we're better than we were a year ago."
Defensive back Prentiss Waggner and linebacker Curt Maggitt were in red noncontact jerseys, and linebacker Austin Johnson practiced with a brace on his knee.
Devrin Young, the freshman who's recovered fully from a broken collarbone and could play Saturday as UT's punt returner, was back in his normal white practice jersey.
Defensive end Ben Martin (sprained ankle) didn't practice, and it doesn't look like he'll be available Saturday. Reserve defensive back Byron Moore didn't practice for the second consecutive day.
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 ...
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