COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee had to wait eight games for its first special-teams score of the season, but the Volunteers' first return touchdown of the 2016 season was a timely one.
Evan Berry returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown with 18th-ranked Tennessee trailing 17-7 in the third quarter of Saturday night's game at South Carolina.
An All-American with three kick-return touchdowns last season, Berry, who averaged an NCAA-best 38.3 yards per return in 2015, entered the game averaging nearly 28 yards on 12 returns in the first seven games of this season.
With his fourth career TD kick return, Berry tied Willie Gault for the program's career record. Gault had three during the 1980 season. He's also Tennessee's record-holder for career kick-return yards.
The last thing Tennessee's defense needed was another injury at defensive tackle, but the Vols lost sophomore Shy Tuttle to an apparent right leg injury in the third quarter.
The Vols lost Kahlil McKenzie to a season-ending injury (torn pectoral tendon) shortly after fifth-year senior Danny O'Brien was dismissed after the Texas A&M game, and junior college transfer Alexis Johnson, who was suspended for six months during the offseason, has been dealing with a hip injury.
Against South Carolina, Tennessee basically relied on an interior rotation of Kendal Vickers, Tuttle and Kyle Phillips, a defensive end forced to play inside. The sophomore, a former five-star recruit, played 25 snaps at tackle against Alabama and worked in the role during the open date. Phillips had a tackle for loss in the first half Saturday night.
Tuttle was taken to the locker room on a cart early in the fourth quarter.
As multiple coaches hinted since the Alabama game, Tennessee played Darrin Kirkland Jr., who made his long-awaited return from his ankle injury, alongside Colton Jumper, the former Baylor School standout who replaced him at middle linebacker during his six-game injury absence.
Through three quarters Kirkland led the Vols with seven tackles.
On the line
Tennessee's offensive line clearly benefited from the team's open date.
By the end of the first quarter against Alabama, the Vols were down to four backups, including redshirt freshmen Venzell Boulware and Drew Richmond and freshman Marcus Tatum, due to injuries.
All four starters from the Texas A&M game returned against the Gamecocks, as Tennessee started, from left to right, Brett Kendrick, Jashon Robertson, Dylan Wiesman, Jack Jones and Chance Hall. Kendrick and Robertson returned from ankle injuries, Wiesman recovered from the apparent concussion he suffered at Texas A&M and Hall's ailing knee cooperated enough for him to play.
Guard Jack Jones played less than two weeks after undergoing surgery on his thumb, and he wore a noticeable cast on his left wrist and hand Saturday night.
Tennessee's injury woes weren't entirely solved by the open date, however.
Starting safety Micah Abernathy dressed for warmups, but the sophomore didn't play due to the hamstring injury he suffered in the fourth quarter against Alabama.
Berry started alongside Todd Kelly Jr. in Abernathy's place, but his role didn't end there. In addition to handling kickoff returns, Berry got one snap and one carry on offense, taking a jet sweep for a 6-yard gain during a possession in the first half.
Freshman Nigel Warrior got increased action at safety in the second half as Berry regrouped following his touchdown.
Struggles at corner
Starting cornerback Malik Foreman did not travel with Tennessee to South Carolina due to his shoulder injury. Foreman missed the Alabama game, but he practiced some this past week in a noncontact jersey. He hadn't healed enough, though, to handle the contact on his ailing shoulder.
In Foreman's stead, freshman Baylen Buchanan started the second consecutive game, but he was yanked in the first half. Buchanan was beaten by Deebo Samuel for a 21-yard catch despite pass interference to set up South Carolina's first touchdown. Later in the half he was penalized for another pass interference.
Justin Martin came into the game, broke up a third-down pass and combined with Derek Barnett for a sack.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.