Tennessee preseason preview: Special teams

Tennessee preseason preview: Special teams

July 31st, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Bowling Green's Gehrig Dieter is driven out of bounds by Tennessee's Evan Berry, center, and Malik Foreman after a long pass reception during last season's opener at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. Berry led the nation in kickoff return average last season and helped make special teams one of the Vols' biggest assets.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

38.3: Evan Berry's NCAA-leading kickoff-return average last season. San Diego State's Rashaad Penny, who finished second in the country in the category, averaged nearly 5 fewer yards per return.

467: In addition to leading the nation in punt-return average, Cameron Sutton set a program record with 467 punt-return yards, breaking Bobby Majors' mark of 457 in 1969.

6: Tennessee's six special-teams touchdowns in 2015 set a program record. The Vols had two games with a kickoff-return and a punt-return score, which hadn't been done since 1950. Berry returned kickoffs for touchdowns against Western Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky, while Sutton (Kentucky and Vanderbilt) and Alvin Kamara (Western Carolina) combined for Tennessee's three punt-return touchdowns — and Kamara had one wiped out by a penalty against Arkansas.

45.7: Tennessee had to replace Matt Darr, who punted for the Miami Dolphins as an NFL rookie, going into last season, but former walk-on Trevor Daniel quickly and thoroughly put any questions to rest. He averaged 45.7 yards per punt, ranking him second in the Southeastern Conference and eighth nationally. Of Daniel's 60 punts, 22 were longer than 50 yards.

6-of-18: Kicker Aaron Medley's career line on field-goal attempts of 40 or more yards.

STAR POWER

Butch Jones likes to point to the Auburn game during his first season as Tennessee's coach in 2013 as the nadir for his program's special teams. The Tigers returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns that day in a 32-point win in Knoxville. The speed chasm between the two teams was never more apparent than it was on special teams.

Two seasons later, the Volunteers were one of the nation's best in that phase of the game.

Kickoff returner Evan Berry and punt returner Cameron Sutton led the nation in average return yardage, Trevor Daniel was one of the best punters in the Southeastern Conference and the Vols ranked 14th nationally in kickoff coverage.

Tennessee spends multiple periods in practice every day on special teams, and the extra focus and attention have paid off, but the Vols must maintain the same level of performance to reach their goals this season.

PROMISING PROSPECTS

Freshmen bolstered Tennessee's coverage units in each of the past three seasons.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin led the Vols in special-teams tackles and blocked a punt in 2013 before becoming a defensive star. Cortez McDowell and Rashaan Gaulden were among the team's top special-teams tacklers in 2014. Micah Abernathy, Jauan Jennings, John Kelly, Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Quart'e Sapp were other special-teams staples last season.

Tennessee again will count on some freshmen to contribute, and Tyler Byrd, Carlin Fils-aime, Marquill Osborne and Nigel Warrior seem like safe bets to do so.

FRESH FACES

The Vols didn't add any scholarship specialists in their 2016 class, but they will have a new battery on field goals after the graduation of snapper Matt Giampapa and holder Patrick Ashford.

Redshirt freshman Riley Lovingood, Giampapa's backup last season, appears to be the favorite to take over that job.

The Vols will need to identify their second options at punter and kicker after the departures of Tommy Townsend and George Bullock. Laszlo Toser from Chattanooga will have the chance to back up Aaron Medley at kicker.

STRONG SUITS

Tennessee's return game developed into one of the most dangerous in the country, whether Berry or Sutton were scoring touchdowns, gaining valuable field position for the offense or forcing short or poor kicks when opponents tried to prevent them from touching the ball.

Berry and Sutton are back, and Tennessee could give Alvin Kamara more opportunities to maximize his game-breaking skills.

The Vols also were stingy covering kicks. Tennessee finished second in the SEC in kickoff coverage and 31st nationally in net punting. The only return touchdown Tennessee allowed was a punt against Georgia when officials incorrectly decided to pick up the penalty flag for an illegal block in the back.

Tennessee's coaches split up each phase of special teams among themselves and have created a culture in which players understand the importance of special teams and value earning spots on those units.

QUESTION MARKS

In the first two years of his Vols career, Medley missed 12 of his 18 field-goal attempts of 40 or more yards, and Tennessee simply needs him to be more reliable from longer distances to shore up the lone weakness in the kicking game.

Inside of 40 yards, Medley has been nearly automatic, missing only four times on 39 attempts.

Six of Medley's 10 misses in 2015 were in Tennessee losses. Three of those — the 55-yarder at the horn at Florida and two 51-yarders at Alabama — are tough kicks to make for anybody. He also missed a 48-yarder against Oklahoma that would've made it 20-3 in the third quarter, clanked a 28-yarder off the upright at a pivotal point against Arkansas and missed an opening-drive 43-yarder against the Crimson Tide.

Medley bounced back from his rough day at Alabama to make 12 of his final 14 kicks last season, including a 4-of-5 mark from beyond 40 yards, and he hopes to take the confidence he gained into this season.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com