KNOXVILLE — The graduations of kick returner Evan Berry, punter Trevor Daniel and place-kicker Aaron Medley give first-year Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt a lot to replace on special teams as the Volunteers prepare to begin preseason practice Friday.
Daniel finished the 2017 season tied for first nationally in average yards per punt (47.5), while Medley graduated as the second-highest scoring player in program history. Berry, though plagued by injury, inspired fear in opponents with his returning ability.
But if there is a silver lining to the health issues that hampered Medley and Berry during their final seasons, it's that other players gained experience that could prove valuable as Tennessee strives to make a bowl game in Pruitt's debut campaign.
Sophomore running back Ty Chandler returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Tennessee's win over Indiana State last season and is a natural candidate to return kicks again in 2018 after filling in for Berry for much of the year. Junior receiver Marquez Callaway returned 13 punts — and also returned six kickoffs — but struggled with catching punts. Callaway is a versatile playmaker, but it might be worth considering a player with similar strengths who is less vital to the offense, such as junior receiver Tyler Byrd, for the punt-returning role.
Sophomore kicker Brent Cimaglia returns after making 8 of 13 field-goal attempts last season while thrust into action as Medley battled mononucleosis. Cimaglia's five misses all came on tries of 40 yards or longer.
Freshman Paxton Brooks is the favorite for the starting punter job. The lanky three-star prospect from South Carolina was inconsistent in the spring game but averaged 41.8 yards per punt as a high school senior. He will compete with redshirt freshman Joe Doyle, who apprenticed under Daniel last season after a standout prep career at Farragut High School just west of Knoxville.
Michigan graduate transfer kicker Ryan Tice will provide Cimaglia with competition. Tice missed the only field-goal attempt of his Wolverines career, but he made 10 of 10 extra-point tries.
Look for a dozen players to get practice repetitions at punt returner and kick returner during the preseason.
Chandler showed game-changing ability last season. If the staff chooses to use him on special teams this season, he could be a player who swings a game in Tennessee's favor with his shifty speed and deceptive power.
Cimaglia has some experience from a year ago to fall back on, but entering a season with mostly unproven punters and kickers is not ideal.