KNOXVILLE - It's been a busy week for Mark Elder.
Tennessee's special-teams coordinator and tight ends coach and his wife, Lindsey, are fostering six puppies born this week and their mother until they're ready for adoption. The Elders have two dogs of their own, too.
Elder also is making sure Tennessee stays sharp on special teams and trying to find a replacement for Devrin Young, the Volunteers' punt and kickoff returner who broke his hand Tuesday.
In the season opener against Austin Peay, Young broke a 58-yard kickoff to open the second half and set up a field goal, but Tennessee allowed kickoff returns of 36, 28, 20 and 20 yards. Michael Palardy's night included a 37-yard field goal, a 53-yard punt and a touchback on the season's first kickoff. The Vols neither muffed a punt nor made a substitution error that would prompt a penalty or an unnecessary timeout.
After Tennessee finished Wednesday's preparation for Saturday's game against Western Kentucky, Elder talked special teams and replacing Young with the Times Free Press.
TFP: Coach [Butch] Jones said he didn't like some of the things on kickoff coverage in the opener. What did you see, and where do you guys need to make improvement moving forward?
Elder: "We let the ball get outside the framework of our defense there. On the one return it wasn't good. We had a couple of good positive things. We had a couple of tackles inside the 20, and the biggest thing is just consistency. We've got to continually, every single time we go out there, have a positive result. The one time we let the ball out, and field position is the name of the game, especially in tight ballgames.
"We were fortunate that that wasn't a tight ballgame where it didn't matter much, but when you're coming down to some of these games where it's going to come down to a field goal or a touchdown or less, at the end of a game, those field positions can be all the difference in the world.
"As far as that's concerned, we've got to keep the ball within the framework of the defense on our kickoff cover team."
TFP: Across all the special-teams units, how much do you guys tinker with personnel groups and who's playing on those units in the middle of the season?
Elder: "Every single week, and it's always been that way for us. Every single week, guys are competing for their spot, and not just on what they do on Saturday, but we truly believe that your performance on Tuesday and your performance on Wednesday's going to dictate your performance on Saturday. So if you come out on a Tuesday and you don't perform very well on kickoff or kickoff return or whatever it is, and your backup outperforms you, you could lose your job in hurry.
"As far as that stuff is concerned, there's no set in stone. It's not what you're going to see week one is going to be what you see week 12. We're constantly striving to get the best 11 guys out there on the field so that we can be the best team possible."
TFP: You mentioned on a kickoff keeping it inside the 20, but what are the benchmarks? What constitutes good kickoff coverage, a good punt, a good punt return? What are the benchmarks and the numbers you as a staff look at to evaluate special teams?
Elder: "Obviously with the kickoff cover, that's certainly a benchmark we have as far as if we can keep the ball inside the 20 -- that's what we look at as a very positive play for us. That's something that we want to do. Any time we have a position on punt where can pin the ball inside the 10, if we're going into a short field, that's someting that we'd like to be able to do.
"Gaining positive yards as far as it's net punt is what really matters. It's not necessarily your average that counts; it's your net punt that counts, and that's what we're always striving to have the best net punt possible. For example, you can go out there and punt with a 41-yard average, and if you've got great hang time and you're not allowing much of a return, that's better than punting that thing 45 yards, but you don't have great hang time and they're able to get an 8- or 9-yard return on you, you're actually losing field position. That's what matters for us there.
"Kickoff return, any explosive play. We're trying to get it out past the 40 -- that's an explosive play. We're happy anything that gets out past the 25, because that's kind of the benchmark as far as the touchback is concerned. Those are some of the things we're looking to do."
TFP: What in the return game made Devrin Young take those jobs, where do you guys go from here if he's out just one game or a bunch of games and where's your confidence level go from him to whoever's next?
Elder: "What Devrin has done for us, and the reason that we liked Devrin at our returning position, is because of his consistency in fielding the football. We like the fact that we think he's good with the ball in his hands. He can make you miss, he's explosive -- all those things. Those are the things that we like about Devrin Young, and those are the things that have had him as a starter at this point in time.
"It's been a close battle the whole way through as far as who else. Going into week one, Devrin won those positions, but it was a very close battle with some guys. We've got a number of guys that we feel very confident with fielding balls, we feel very confident with what they can do with the ball in their hands. There's a number of guys that just like any other position, the return game, are going to be competing for starting positions throughout the year."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.