As Tennessee's first football season under Josh Heupel approached, Heupel along with offensive coordinator Alex Golesh and defensive coordinator Tim Banks continually praised the effort of their players but were otherwise guarded given the unknowns ahead.
Not so with special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler.
"We should wreck shop," Ekeler declared last August.
Looking back, the Volunteers were indeed solid in the sport's third phase and have plenty of reasons for optimism in the months ahead despite the loss of Velus Jones Jr., who led the Southeastern Conference in punt returns with a 15.1-yard average and ranked second in kickoff returns with a 27.3-yard clip before earning a Senior Bowl invitation and positioning himself for this week's NFL draft.
Jones was a sixth-year senior who began his career at Southern California before transferring, which will be the same dynamic later this year for Tennessee kicker Chase McGrath. In his first season with the Vols, the 6-foot, 195-pounder from Newport Beach, California, was 12-of-16 on field-goal attempts for a 75.0% accuracy clip, the highest for a Tennessee kicker since Brent Cimaglia's stellar 2019 season in which he went 23-of-27 (85.2%).
"Coming here has been an amazing experience, and I'm really thankful for it," McGrath said this month. "I've had a lot of fun."
McGrath's final attempt last year was his 56-yard miss on the last play of regulation in the eventual 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl. He described being motivated by that and said he has become more comfortable from that distance.
Tennessee averaged 25.4 yards on kickoff returns last season while allowing 21.2 yards, but in no area were the Vols more dominant than punt returns. While Jones was doing his part to increase field position, Paxton Brooks punted 45 times for a 44.0-yard average.
Only seven of his punts were returned for a total of 14 yards, with that 2.0 yards allowed per return ranking fourth nationally.
"It's because our guys played their tails off, and it's also because he's got a five-second hang time," Ekeler said this month. "I could have jogged down there and covered some of them."
Brooks, a 6-6, 195-pound, fifth-year senior from Lexington, South Carolina, had 11 punts last season in excess of 50 yards. His impressive season included one Saturday when he wasn't needed at all — the 62-24 win at Missouri in which the Vols didn't punt for the first time since the 2009 opener against Western Kentucky.
Only Coastal Carolina wound up allowing fewer punt return yards than Tennessee.
"There is always room for improvement — consistency, hang time," Brooks said. "We only gave up 14 return yards last year, but our goal is zero. Any way that I can improve is important."
Brooks began last season handling kickoffs as well as punts, but after seven kickoffs in the Bowling Green opener and one in the second game against Pittsburgh, he was replaced by Toby Wilson, who is also a fifth-year senior. Putting too much stress on his groin muscles resulted in Brooks having to yield his kickoff chores, but he battled Wilson this spring for the right to reclaim them.
Craig Colquitt, Britton Colquitt and Trevor Daniel are three former Tennessee punters with whom Brooks has built relationships, and he hopes to leave Knoxville being viewed among the all-time greats as well.
"When they're in town, I pick their brains about anything and everything I can," Brooks said. "There is definitely a lineage of punters as every Tennessee fan knows."
The biggest task for Ekeler will be determining who replaces Jones, pointing out that junior receiver Jimmy Holiday, fifth-year senior safety Trevon Flowers and freshman receiver Marquarius "Squirrel" White vied this spring. What isn't a concern for him is who is doing the kicking.
"We've got guys who I feel are absolute pros," Ekeler said. "The way they handle their business is like they're on Sunday right now."
Robinson in portal
Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman James Robinson, a 6-4, 335-pounder from Montgomery, Alabama, entered the transfer portal this weekend. Robinson's only appearance for the Vols transpired last season against Bowling Green.
He was a three-star guard prospect in the 2020 signing class.