'Unacceptable' special teams doom Tennessee Vols

'Unacceptable' special teams doom Tennessee Vols

November 10th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

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Tennessee running back Marlin Lane (15) hits a wall of Auburn defenders during their game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee coach Butch Jones used the same word five separate times.


That's how the man in his first year in charge of the Volunteers described his Tennessee's special teams on Saturday, as Auburn returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in a 55-23 demolition of the hosts at Neyland Stadium.

"It doesn't give you a chance right from the get-go," Jones said.

Chris Davis was Tennessee's undoing in the first half, as the senior cornerback returned a punt 42 yards to set up the Tigers' first score and later took a Michael Palardy boot back 85 yards to give Auburn a 20-13 lead it never relinquished.

With the Vols trailing 34-20 at halftime, tailback Corey Grant took a kickoff 90 yards for a score to open the second half.

"That was a big part of today's game," Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said. "If you give up two touchdowns on special teams, it's kind of hard to come back on anybody. We've got to get that done this off week.

"Normally our special teams is something we pride ourselves on. We get down the field, and we give supreme effort. This wasn't like us today."

Tennessee entered Saturday's game ranked fifth in the SEC and 27th nationally in punt-return defense at 4.8 yards per return, and the Vols were 10th in the league and 93rd in the country in kickoff coverage at 23.1 yards per return.

It was the first time in Auburn history the Tigers have returned both a punt and a kickoff for TDs.

"It comes down to one-on-one matchups and getting off your blocks," Jones said, "and we weren't able to do that."

Tailback Tre Mason returned a kickoff 33 yards to set up a big touchdown just before halftime, and receiver Quan Bray's 35-yard return to the Auburn 45-yard line set up a score in the third quarter.

Other than some short kickoffs, Palardy said he placed kicks "pretty well," and Jones said the kick on Grant's return was "adequate" though not deep enough.

"It's players getting off blocks and making a play in space," the coach said. "I think y'all saw the speed differential out there. Everything we talk about is role understanding, and every individual has a role on this football team. Some it's offense or defense, some it's special teams, but you treat that role as though you're the best.

"You may get six snaps a game. If you're the left guard on the punt team, you're going to be the [best] left guard in the country. You're going to be better than any left guard in the country."

Score for Smith

Tennessee defensive end Jacques Smith, a former Ooltewah High School standout, stepped in front of a Nick Marshall screen pass and galloped 18 yards to the end zone for the first touchdown by a Vols defensive lineman since Wes Brown took a pickoff back against Vanderbilt in 2009.

"It was just a read that I saw from on film and just studying," the senior said. "[Marshall] gave me the key, and I knew the play was happening immediately. The running back flashed across my eyes, and that confirmed that I knew what was happening. It was a slip screen, and the quarterback made a bad throw."

Smith spiked the ball out of excitement upon his arrival to the end zone, which drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty enforced on the ensuing kickoff, which Mason returned to Tennessee's 45.

Two plays later, Marshall restored Auburn's two-touchdown lead with a 38-yard scoring sprint.

"Coach Jones, he got into me and said, 'Act like you've been there before,'" Smith said. "As a senior and setting the example for younger guys, I should've not done that. I really apologized for that. It was a big play, and it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and I was just so happy to find a way to the end zone."

Dobbs debrief

In his second start, Tennessee freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs completed 16 of 25 passes for 128 yards and ran for 50 yards on 10 carries, including a 32-yard run on a quarterback draw.

He was sacked twice and threw an interception on the first play of a series in the third quarter.

"I thought he was decisive when he pulled the ball," Jones said. "It was great to see us making a play at quarterback in terms of pulling the ball down and creating some yardage. Again, that's a lot to put on the shoulders of an 18-year-old playing against the competition that he's playing against, but if anyone can handle it, it's Joshua Dobbs.

"I thought for the most part he did some very good things, some very positive things of continuing to move forward."

Gimpy Gillespie

Running backs coach Robert Gillespie hurt himself while celebrating tailback Rajion Neal's second-quarter touchdown and continued the play-signaling duties he shares with three other assistants on crutches.

"I think it's a coach who loves his players, and we get excited," Jones said. "Rajion Neal made a great play, and it's not the first time that it's happened. Robert puts a lot of effort and energy into coaching those backs, and I think if anything, it shows you how much we care about our players."

Extra points

Tennessee's captains for the game were linebackers Dontavis Sapp and A.J. Johnson, kicker Michael Palardy and center James Stone. ... The Vols kicked a field goal on their first drive for their first opening-drive points since a touchdown in the opener against Austin Peay. ... Tennessee hosted eight official visitors to campus for Saturday's game, a group headlined by five-star California athlete Adoree' Jackson, the nation's No. 7 overall and top overall athlete according to Rivals.com. ... Defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry, who missed four games earlier in the year with a knee injury before returning the past two weeks, was on crutches on the sideline Saturday and did not play. ... Reserve safety and special teamer Geraldo Orta hurt his right leg in kickoff coverage late in the second quarter.