KNOXVILLE — Mark Elder's title indicates he is Tennessee's special-teams coordinator, but he hardly handles football's third phase on his own.
When the Volunteers break into a special-teams period during practice, it's usually all hands on deck with the other assistant coaches, who handle a position on a particular special-teams unit much as they do on offense or defense. That's how new head coach Butch Jones has operated at his previous stops as well.
"Special teams is no different than offense or defense," Elders said after practice Thursday morning. "You don't have one guy coaching all 11 on offense. You have an offensive line coach; you have a tight ends coach; you have a running backs coach, a quarterback coach and a receiver coach.
"That's our philosophy with special teams. Within special teams, there's a big picture to it all, but there's individuals that are coaching the individual drill that's specific for that unit. For example, on kickoff return, someone's coaching the returners, someone's coaching the fullbacks, someone's coaching a part of the front line and the other part of the front line."
Tommy Thigpen and Willie Martinez, two defensive assistants who were not on Jones' staffs at Central Michigan or Cincinnati, said such division of responsibility is fairly common in college football.
The special-teams periods during practice under Tennessee's previous coaching staff typically weren't open for viewing, but the dozen spring practices under Jones have revealed the collective approach.
"What that allows you to do is get a little bit higher coach-to-player ratio so they're getting more coaching," Elder said. "If you have one guy coaching all 11, you're going to give one point, two points to just a couple of guys, and they're not going to get coached up and their technique's not going to improve. But if you have one coach assigned to two or three guys, they're going to get coached up every single play and their technique's going to improve."
Elder coached linebackers, tight ends, running backs and safeties under Jones the past six seasons and handles Tennessee's tight ends. While he oversaw the Vols' punt period Thursday, Thigpen handled the three-player shield between the snapper and the punter, receivers coach Zach Azzanni worked blocking and releasing with the protection unit and running backs coach Robert Gillespie was with the returners.
"Each guy has a position," said Thigpen, who handled special teams at Bowling Green (2001-02) and coached at Illinois, North Carolina and Auburn before joining Jones. "Everybody's accountable for some position.
"[With] one guy coaching 11 guys, you find yourself where guys are daydreaming, so what we do is each guy gets coached on every single position."
Martinez typically works with the Vols' kickoff-return unit.
"Number one, I would say this, that from a team standpoint it's great when all the coaches are involved," he said. "The players see that, but most of our guys, especially myself being the secondary [coach], my guys are on those teams, so I'm coaching those players. It shows the importance that every coach is involved to the players.
"When you see our head football coach that's the lead on the punt team -- that's his baby -- and everybody else is helping, that shows you a lot."
Using a group effort on special teams falls in line for a coaching staff that emphasizes teaching.
"It's the best way for our guys to improve technique on a consistent basis," Elder said, "because they're going to get corrected every single snap just like offense or defense. You see the coaches hollering at guys, 'Hey, here's what you need to improve,' coaching them up, getting their technique better. We're going to do the exact same things on special teams."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 ...