Tennessee Volunteers considering kickoff plan

photo The University of Tennessee's Michael Palardy talks to an official before kicking off in the 2011 Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium.
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ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. -- College football's new kickoff rules bring with them an air of uncertainty.

Tennessee is making sure it's as prepared as possible to handle that new aspect of its special teams.

Kickoffs are moving up 5 yards to the 35, and teams will start at the 25-yard line on touchbacks instead of the 20.

What's unknown is how everybody will handle it.

"Do you have a [kicker] that can bang it out, or do you want to kick it up there and try to let it drop inside the 5 and see what they're going to do with it?" Volunteers special-teams coach Charlie Coiner pondered aloud after Tennessee's practice Thursday afternoon at Milligan College. "You're thinking about what you're going to do, but you're also looking at who you're going to play and trying to figure out what will they do.

"Are they going to come out and just try to knock it through the end zone, or are they going to pin us back? I think there's a lot of strategy. I think what's going to happen is people will go through the first year, they'll look and see how everybody plays it and they'll formulate their opinions and their strategies and go from there."

The NCAA made the changes after the offseason after studies showed that more injuries occurred on kickoffs than on any other play. Tennessee has been building its plan since the spring, with head coach Derek Dooley continuing his heavy involvement in special teams. The two schools of thought seem to be kick it for a touchback every time or try to pin the return team deep and cover the kick.

Teams must weigh which is better: the kicker's leg or the unit's coverage skills. The Vols were seventh nationally in kickoff-return yardage allowed in 2011. Kicker Michael Palardy had just six touchbacks, and Tennessee signed the strong-legged George Bullock in February.

"The 5 yards always helps, I'm not going to lie," Palardy said. "I've been healthy this whole offseason, and that's really helped. I feel a lot stronger than I have been the past couple of years.

"It depends on what they want. If I can consistently kick it into the end zone or out of the end zone, I don't think the coaches would have a problem with that. We'll see what [Dooley] wants and what our scheme's going to be."

Coiner said Tennessee has looked at the strategy from "all angles." He spent six years in the NFL with Chicago and Buffalo as a special-teams assistant. Dooley spent two seasons at LSU as Nick Saban's special-teams coach.

"It's an 11-man deal," Coiner said. "If you've got a kicker that can put it back in the corner and pin them, and you've got a coverage unit that's good doing that, then you tend to let them play. But at the same time, there's something to be said for just kicking that thing and letting it come out, put it on the 25 and let's go."

The Vols spend time on special teams at each practice, and Coiner said he's "very comfortable" with each unit from a personnel standpoint. Unlike offense and defense, more guys are available to play special teams, and some guys' only contributions come on those units. Injuries and risks make that depth chart an evolving one, but Coiner feels "very good" about where Tennessee is there.

"We go over the depth chart over and over because your depth chart's bigger and your pool's bigger in special teams," Coiner said. "We go in every day and we're looking for answers [that] could be on either side of the ball. There's more opportunities to try people out, look at a guy here, look at a guy there and [Dooley] is pretty adamant about we need to find the guys that can do it as early as we can because you want to be working with the right people.

"We feel like we're in a good place."

Where everyone is with kickoffs, though, is in an unknown place.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.