New specialists appreciating opportunities with Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee snapper Matthew Salansky (47), punter/holder Jackson Ross (98) and kicker Charles Campbell (97) celebrate a successful attempt during last week's second spring scrimmage.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee snapper Matthew Salansky (47), punter/holder Jackson Ross (98) and kicker Charles Campbell (97) celebrate a successful attempt during last week's second spring scrimmage.

After a football season in which Tennessee led the nation with 525.5 yards and 46.1 points per game, the Volunteers aren't moving forward with the objective of settling on a lot of punts and field-goal attempts.

Still, it's the job of Mike Ekeler to make sure the Vols are equipped to handle such situations should they occur.

"In year three, you should have great competition," Ekeler, the third-year special teams coordinator of the Vols, said Thursday during a news conference. "It's where you should be, or else I shouldn't be standing here, but that's what we've got. We've got great camaraderie, because these guys pull for each other, and we've got great competition."

With some new names that Tennessee fans will have to learn.

While the Vols return their leading passer (Joe Milton III), rusher (Jaylen Wright), receiver (Squirrel White) and tackler (Aaron Beasley) from last December's 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl, they no longer have punter Paxton Brooks and kicker Chase McGrath. Brooks was a reliable four-year starter who handled 94 of Tennessee's 103 kickoffs last season and received an invitation to the recent NFL combine — a rarity for a specialist — while McGrath made 16 of 20 field-goal attempts a year ago, including a fairly meaningful try from 40 yards out on the final play against Alabama.

McGrath was a transfer from Southern California, and the favorite for kicking duties this year is Charles Campbell, who also was obtained via the transfer portal from Indiana. The 5-foot-9, 181-pound Campbell is from Jackson and was a Tennessee Mr. Football finalist in 2017 before venturing to the Big Ten and making 39 of 51 field-goal attempts for the Hoosiers.

Campbell, who will have one season of eligibility with the Vols, has five career makes from 50 yards or longer.

"He's got a tremendous competitive spirit and has the ability to snap and clear," Ekeler said. "He might hit a bad one, but it doesn't affect his next one. He's really got a pro mindset.

"He's from Tennessee, and he wants to be here. It's important to him."

Campbell said Thursday that he grew up liking the Vols and that he appreciates the welcome he has received from teammates. Traveling a bit further to play in Knoxville is punter Jackson Ross, a 6-3, 195-pounder from Melbourne, Australia, who played three years of Australian Rules Football and will be a 24-year-old redshirt freshman this fall.

Ross said Thursday that Raising Cane's is at the top of his list of fast-food chains and that he does not get homesick when he visits an Outback Steakhouse.

"Outback Steakhouse has absolutely nothing to do with Australia," Ross said, likely ending any NIL chances with that restaurant chain. "Their menu has like steaks' names on it and stuff like that, but the Gold Coast burger is just irrelevant. I won't say anything else."

Campbell has played in front of Big Ten crowds in excess of 100,000, but Ekeler said Ross also competed in front of similar audiences in Australia.

"He goes out into Neyland Stadium," Ekeler said, "and he's like, 'Yeah, this is pretty cool. It's kind of what I'm used to.'"

Ross is battling with redshirt sophomore Kolby Morgan and redshirt freshman Josh Turbyville, while Campbell is in a mix with redshirt sophomore JT Carver and freshman Max Gilbert. Turbyville is also competing some at kicker, having performed one kickoff last year that went for a touchback.

Vying at snapper are fifth-year seniors Matthew Salansky and Alton Stephens and redshirt freshman Bennett Brady.


No pretty boys

Ekeler was asked Thursday what he looks for with his coverage units.

"We're looking for guys who have a little chipped tooth or have a crossed eye," he said. "If they're like a surfer boy or a good-looking dude, they're probably not going to be on coverage teams. They'll be playing quarterback or wide receiver or something.

"We want those guys who are a little bit on the spectrum."


'Fart in a skillet'

When Ekeler was asked before his first season with the Vols what he was looking for in a punt returner, he replied that he wanted "a fart in a skillet."

Tennessee's punt returner last season was Dee Williams, who had 15 returns for 281 yards (18.7 yards per return) and a touchdown.

"That guy is a fart in a skillet," Ekeler said Tuesday.

Ekeler added that White provides a lot of the same traits as Williams and that running backs Dylan Sampson and Cameron Seldon have also done well in the return game this spring.


High on Herring

In addition to serving as special teams coordinator, Ekeler also coaches edge rushers and has been very impressed with four-star midyear enrollee Caleb Herring from Murfreesboro.

"That guy can be a freaky talent, and he loves ball," Ekeler said. "After practice, he'll come in, and I won't even have a chance to watch the film yet, and he's watched it all. That guy eats, sleeps and drinks ball, and that's what the great ones do.

"A lot of guys talk about wanting this or that, but their actions don't match their expectations. Then you get a guy like him who just goes in there, locks the door in the meeting room and gets after it."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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