KNOXVILLE -- A 35-yard, game-opening kickoff return from freshman David Oku gave the University of Tennessee a solid special-teams start Saturday night against Auburn.
It also gave the Volunteers a heaping helping of special teams fool's gold.
Early gaffes from kicker Daniel Lincoln and punter Chad Cunningham kept Auburn tied before helping the Tigers to the lead in Neyland Stadium.
Lincoln, who entered Saturday's game 5-for-6 on field-goal tries this season, shanked a 41-yard attempt on the Vols' first drive. It knuckled, fluttered and fell short and left, keeping the game scoreless.
Cunningham then shanked a punted 17 yards to the Auburn 44-yard line after UT stalled on its second possession, and the Tigers drove for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Vols' punting game bounced back somewhat to finish the first half, at least in part because of the amount of opportunities. Cunningham averaged 39.8 yards on five first-half punts, and Auburn's Phillip Pierre-Louis had just 2 yards on his only return at that point.
Cunningham's fortunes kept improving early in the third quarter, when he boomed a 53-yarder while standing in the end zone. He had a 46-yarder to a fair catch at the Auburn 11 later in the period.
Lincoln's struggles continued, though. He had an extra-point kick blocked late in the first half, keeping UT's deficit at 13-6. Lincoln entered Saturday's game 89-for-90 in career extra-point tries.
Shuffling of starters
As expected, UT's Gerald Williams slid to right defensive end from the left side to start in place of fellow junior Chris Walker, who was limited all week in practice with a lower back injury.
Walker returned to start the second half after sitting out Saturday's first two quarters. That was a welcome return for UT's tired defense. Walker registered four sacks in the Vols' first four games this season after collecting three in a much smaller role last season.
Senior Cory Sullins, a former walk-on, started in place of junior Jarrod Shaw at left guard on offense, but both played.
Junior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson returned to the starting lineup and made an immediate impact. Thompson leveled Auburn fullback Mario Fannin for a 3-yard loss on the Tigers' first possession. Auburn senior quarterback made it easier for Thompson by floating the ball to Fannin in the flat.
Sprint by Stocker
Vols junior tight end Luke Stocker's 40-yard reception late in the first half outdid his previous career high by 10 yards.
The 6-foot-6 Stocker caught a 30-yarder against Alabama last season and a 23-yarder in this season's victory over Western Kentucky. Stocker collected two touchdowns in that win over the Hilltoppers.
Vols junior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, whose season ended with a torn ACL against Ohio, still went out with the team captains for the pregame coin flip. Auburn won the toss and deferred its option until the second half. ... Quarterback Andy Kelly from Rhea County High School and wide receiver Carl Pickens and were honored before the game as UT legends.
UT senior receiver Quintin Hancock had a tough time early Saturday night, perhaps a sign of rust following his absence against Ohio with a jaw injury. Hancock, the Vols' leading receiver, had consecutive passes bounce off his hands and helmet late in the first half.
Fannin had a tough first half as a pass-catcher, with a total of minus-1 yard on three receptions. He had a better time in the third quarter, though, catching a short pass to get back above the zero mark and running 20 yards on a reverse. The big run set up a field goal that returned the Tigers' lead to two possessions at 16-6.
Auburn freshman tailback Onterrio McCalebb had 46 yards on just two catches -- a 24-yarder and a 22-yarder. McCalebb also had a respectable 28 yards on just six first-half carries, while Ben Tate continued his big senior season with 89 yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries through two quarters. ... Craig Stevens, listed as a "left linebacker" by Auburn, had seven first-half tackles despite UT running just 30 offensive plays -- one of which was a touchdown.
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