By Robert Holder
KNOXVILLE - University of Tennessee special teams coach Eric Russell and his players have a tough task this week with Florida bringing return specialists Jeff Demps and Janoris Jenkins.
Russell said the Volunteers' coverage units are "not where we want to get."
Russell, who was at Texas Tech last season, said the Vols are "falling short" in "buying into" fundamental coverage techniques and approaches.
Fundamentally, the Vols haven't been where they want to be in the kicking game against the Gators for several years.
Return nemesis Brandon James is gone, but Russell said Florida's special teams still set the standard UT hopes to match one day.
"That is where we would really like to get to," he said. "In some phases they are similar to us, and in some they are really unorthodox compared to everyone else, but it's systematic. You can tell there is a purpose to what they are doing. The impressive thing about watching those guys, you watch them fundamentally and technique wise, and they are very sound."
Florida hasn't suffered much from the loss of James. Demps' 54-yard kick return set up a field goal in the fourth quarter of last week's win over South Florida, and Jenkins returned a punt 30 yards to the USF 35-yard line to set up a third-quarter touchdown.
Tennessee has gained a total of minus-8 yards this season on three punt returns.
The Vols also gave up an 80-yard punt return last week to Oregon's Kenjon Barner, which swelled their average return-allowed figure to 28 yards.
"We had a substitution issue on the play," Russell said. "Both our gunners got blocked and we were soft in protection. We didn't get out and run, and we were gutted. It was just purely fundamental.
"You could tell it wasn't especially important to us at the time to compete on that down."
Demps and Jenkins should be salivating for Saturday after seeing Barner's return on tape.
"The team speed is unbelievable," UT head coach Derek Dooley said of Florida. "You see it on special teams. They've got a couple playmakers, and they make you pay if you give them too much space."
After the Vols worked on punts Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, Russell said it's up to his players to execute on Saturday.
"The thing we tried to emphasize this week was our technique," Russell said. "If you aren't as fast or strong or as big as a guy, your one chance is to do everything right, and we're not there yet."
Vols quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said he's been pleased with the progress of freshman third-teamer Nash Nance, a former standout at Calhoun High School.
Nance, like all UT true freshmen, hasn't been made available to the media.
"He's progressing, and he's doing a good job of what we're asking him to do right now," Hinshaw said. "He's the third guy right now, and he's doing a good job. He's not getting a ton of reps, so he has to get a lot of mental reps right now, and I'm proud that he's doing that, and he's working hard at that.
"He's got to work on some of his mechanics, and he's got to continue to get better at that. That's something I keep stressing to him every day out here. He only has a certain amount of reps that he can get better out here at practice, but he's just got to keep getting better at it."
Hinshaw and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney praised Nance's work ethic.
"Nash is a strong kid," Hinshaw said. "He bench-presses 350 pounds. He works hard at everything that he does. He works hard at school, and he makes really good grades.
"And now he's learning the offense, and he's learning how to be a quarterback."
Staff writer Wes Rucker contributed to this story.
Contact Robert Holder at firstname.lastname@example.org or (423) 757-6273.