UT Vols' special teams working with 'sense of urgency' after breakdowns against Auburn

photo Tennessee kicker Michael Palardy has been solid for the Vols, but improvement is needed on special teams after coverage breakdowns.

KNOXVILLE - Mark Elder stated the obvious Wednesday evening.

Tennessee's special teams allowed a punt and a kickoff return touchdown in a blowout loss to Auburn last week, and the Volunteers' coordinator made no excuses for the breakdowns of Tennessee's coverage units.

"Obviously it was not a very good day for us on teams," Elder said following the Vols' final practice of this week's open date.

Aside from some shaky coverage against Christion Jones, Alabama's dynamic kick returner, the Vols have been fairly solid on special teams this season. Michael Palardy's punting has given Tennessee the edge in field position in a few games, and the Vols blocked a punt for a score against Georgia. After eight games, the Vols were allowing less than 5 yards per punt return.

Auburn's Chris Davis paid that no heed, returning one punt 42 yards to set up a touchdown and scoring on an 85-yard return after he muffed Palardy's kick.

Corey Grant added to the misery by taking the opening kickoff of the second half 90 yards for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a three-touchdown lead, though an obvious illegal block in the back was missed by officials.

Elder said the breakdowns were similar on both plays.

"In both instances, we had opportunities to get the guy on the ground," he explained. "We had guys that were in a position and lost leverage on the football. That's defensive football on coverage units, and any time you lose leverage on the football, big plays can occur. That's what our defense talks about. It's the same with special teams as far as your special teams.

"On the punt, we lost leverage with what's supposed to be our contain guy. The ball got outside of that. A couple of guys didn't do a great job as far as shooting their gun. A couple of guys didn't do a great job getting off blocks and [Auburn] had a guy that's dynamic. It's a space play, and he made a play.

"Obviously that's unacceptable and can't happen, and we're working hard to get it correct right now. Same thing with the kickoff return. We're working our tail off to get that stuff corrected."

Safety LaDarrell McNeil was the only defensive starter on the field for Grant's return. That kickoff team included true freshmen Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Lemond Johnson and Malik Foreman; redshirt freshmen Drae Bowles and Tino Thomas, walk-on safety Max Arnold, third-string tailback Tom Smith and reserve linebackers John Propst and Raiques Crump.

Linebacker Dontavis Sapp and cornerback Justin Coleman were the defensive starters on the field for Davis's score. Crump and Reeves-Maybin are also on that unit, along with nickelbacks Devaun Swafford and JaRon Toney, a walk-on and former walk-on. Linebacker Greg King, defensive tackle Danny O'Brien and guard Dylan Wiesman make up the punter's shield.

"It's disappointing. I can say that much," Elder said. "It was certainly very disappointing. We gave up 14 points, but then also countless yards in field position that were critical to the game going the wrong way as well. We're working hard to get it corrected. It's extremely disappointing as much as we put into it as far as special teams.

"I'm disappointed, the whole coaching staff's disappointed, our players are disappointed, and I'll tell you what, they've had a great sense of urgency these two days as far as coming out when that special teams have been called. These guys have been fired up and competing as hard as they have since day one when we got here."

McCullers MIA

After registering 4.5 tackles for loss against Georgia and South Carolina, big defensive tackle Daniel McCullers recorded just one tackle in each of Tennessee's last two games, and while both Auburn and Missouri ran wide away from the 6-foot-8, 350-pounder, the senior's been a non-factor the past two games.

"With Big Dan, since day one it's all about being consistent and laying it on the line every play and those type things," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "He just hasn't been as consistent. We're just playing some really good teams, and he's got to get a lot better.

"I wish it was one answer. 'It's this,' and we can correct. But it's not. It's consistency, being where you're supposed to be, having your pads down, using your hands, playing hard -- there's no secrets. Consistency's the thing. Some plays, he's outstanding, then the next play he might not be. It's just learning to be consistent."

False-start stops

Tennessee's offensive line has been flagged for seven false starts penalties, including three against Auburn, the past two weeks as it adjusts to a different cadence with freshman Josh Dobbs now at quarterback.

"That's extremely frustrating," center James Stone said Tuesday.

"Especially at home," he added, "there's no excuses to have mental errors like that."

After practice the past two days, the line and Dobbs have worked together on correcting the mistakes by running through the pre-snap process, and offensive line coach Don Mahoney said Wednesday the problem is "more of a timing deal.

"It's the timing and the voice of the quarterback and all those things we've got to be dialed in better," he continued. "It's really James Stone that was late on a couple of times. It's hearing the voice and timing that up and that type of thing.

"We've got to continue to keep working at it, and we can't have it happen."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.