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AP file photo by John Bazemore / Mike Ekeler, who coached special teams at Georgia during the 2014-15 seasons, is in his first year as Tennessee's special teams coordinator.

There is preseason optimism in college football, and then there is Tennessee special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler.

Although the Volunteers lost significant personnel to the NCAA transfer portal after last season's 3-7 collapse and January's termination of Jeremy Pruitt, expect them to be incredibly stout in football's third phase. At least that's the expectation of Ekeler, who coached special teams at Georgia during the 2014-15 seasons and worked with the likes of kicker Marshall Morgan and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie.

"In the spring, our guys worked their tails off," Ekeler said Friday in a news conference. "All you do in spring practice is that you build your players' portfolio, so you figure out with each player what they can and can't do, and you reaffirm it right now. We've got a really good idea of what our guys' skill sets are and where to plug them in.

"We've got a lot of dudes, man, a lot of RLDs — real, live dudes — who are flying around. We should wreck shop."

Tennessee's special teams are headed by punter Paxton Brooks, a second-team preseason All-SEC selection, and receiver Velus Jones Jr., who averaged 22.1 yards on 18 kickoff returns last season. Southern California graduate transfer Chase McGrath is the favorite to handling kicking chores, while the punt-return duties are wide open after running back Eric Gray's transfer to Oklahoma.

Ekeler provided entertaining explanations when asked what he is looking for.

"With kickoff return, you don't have to be a real make-you-miss type of guy, but you've got to be a guy who can run through smoke," he said. "Remember 'Days of Thunder' when he dropped the hammer and drove through the smoke? That's the video I show them. That's what kickoff returns are like.

"You've got bodies everywhere. If you're scared, you better call 9-1-1, or you better run through the damn smoke."

And with punt returns?

"Now you're looking for a fart in a skillet," Ekeler said. "You're looking for a guy who can make you miss — a guy who can make one cut and get vertical. With punt return, you don't have everybody coming down full bore. You've got windows, and you've got space and you've got levels.

"So you can be more of a guy who can make some cuts from inside out."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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