April 17, 2008

Vols face, embrace special teams

Remember the facemask. It's not Tennessee's motto this spring, but it certainly is the genesis for what could be the most explosive special teams unit of the Phillip Fulmer Era.

After all, it was defensive tackle Dan Williams and his sturdy, hard-plastic helmet guard that preserved the Volunteers' Southeastern Conference Eastern Division
crown last November at Kentucky when Williams blocked Lones Seiber's overtime field-goal attempt.

Courtesy Williams' face-off with destiny, Tennessee has attacked its special teams work in spring camp with a renewed verve.

"We all saw that one block can make a difference in our lives with the thing at Kentucky, so it does make a difference and it's a big play in a ballgame," said defensive line coach Dan Brooks, who also handles field goal coverage. "It's just them buying into it. It's all about people buying into it and going all out."

Few can recall a spring filled with such special teams optimism for the Vols. Place-kicker Daniel Lincoln earned All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America as a freshman. Dennis Rogan was electrifying on punt returns, and UT rebounded from miserable early-season kickoff returns with a strong close to lead the SEC. Chad Cunningham, who will handle punting duties through the first five games, has steadily improved throughout spring. It's expected that All-SEC punter Britton Colquitt, whose family is to booting a football what the catching Molinas are to Major League Baseball, will rejoin the team when his five-game suspension in October.

"You look at last year's team and what we accomplished, and I think it needs to be a big staple for the team," said Lincoln. "Our defense is going to be great, and our offense is developing. Our special teams, we've got guys that have been here and are developing and being held responsible on special teams.

"Last year, field goal unit did well. Punt unit shaped up pretty well, kickoff coverage matured throughout the year. We're trying to pick up where we left and take things to a new level, and I want to take things to a new level."

New-level enthusiasm

The hooting and hollering echoed through Neyland Stadium earlier this month; the source an increasingly familiar occurrence. The Vols had just blocked another field goal, and linebacker Adam Myers-White plucked the ball off the turf and scooted down the sideline. Thirty yards behind the play, Eric Berry, Demetrice Morley and De'Angelo Willingham celebrated Berry's block.

"Me, DeMo and Eric and Rogan, we've got that mind-set right now that we're going to go out and try to block every field goal," said Willingham. "Give that good effort, coming off the edge, and we know, if we stay low there's a good chance we're going to block it. Being that we blocked a few already, it gives us a lot of confidence that we're going to come off the edge."

Blocked kicks have become almost commonplace through the Vols' first 13 spring practices, including a blocked field goal or punt in all of the major scrimmages. Last week, Gerald Jones cradled Cunningham's blocked punt and strolled untouched into the end zone.

"We want to make plays; every play counts in the game," Morley said. "Blocking a field goal, blocking a punt. All those things help win games, big games too. We're going to try to make all that count."

An intense competitor who wants to add kickoff duties this season, Lincoln cued the scrimmage tape and counted. The release time on his blocked kicks this spring was perfect. Abundant athleticism from the Vols' demolition crew was better.

"I watched the film, and our get-off times on those field goals that got blocked, were perfect. What we aim for," Lincoln, a former high school linebacker, said. "Those guys were there and didn't get touched. They were out of their stances and a step behind the line of scrimmage before the other guys were knowing what was going on. I like that. I'm having fun, and I like that pressure in the scrimmages. It's definitely going to make us better."

Part of Tennessee's spring progression can be traced to its infusion of new coaches and ideals. Tailbacks coach Stan Drayton has brought an "NFL-type" approach to special teams, according to Fulmer, who has indicated he will take a bolder approach this season in that facet of the game. Jason Michael, tight ends coach, has worked closely with offensive line coach Greg Adkins on field goals and extra points. Graduate assistant Casey Woods appears destined to be a strong special teams coach and is regarded as a bright young coaching mind. Receivers coach Latrell Scott hasn't been shy about barking words of encouragement or teaching on special teams play.

"The new coaching staff helps that," Lincoln said of the elevated attention to special teams. "That's something that Coach Drayton brought into meetings. There's a big emphasis that we're putting on it now. We hadn't done kickoff coverage until the week of the Orange and White last year. I think that's going to pay off in the long run."

And UT's veteran coaches -- Brooks, Steve Caldwell, John Chavis, Larry Slade -- have met the challenge with equal fervor.

"Yeah, they're really energetic and they're involved a lot with it," Rogan said of all the coaches' approach. "Just trying to get a good relationship with us and help all of us out."

Return to sender

Rogan was the catalyst in UT's come-from-behind win against Vanderbilt courtesy a 45-yard punt return in the waning moments. One week earlier the Fulton High School speedster had victimized Arkansas with a season-best 78-yard kickoff return.

But the common theme on both sprints? Rogan just couldn't crack the end zone.
That, Berry insists, will change this year.

"We always compete in everything we do, whether we're playing video games or anything. I think on punt return, we want Dennis to score so bad this year, we all do, and that's why I requested to go to outside gunner on punt return with De'Angelo," said Berry. "Demetrice is on the inside blocking also. That's one of our goals, to get him the most punt yards this year. Just sacrificing ourselves for him and just playing hard."

Rogan faces stiff competition from Jones, who coaches believe can impact the game in several facets. He expects they will have a friendly wager on who will garner the first special teams touchdown by season's dawn.

"Not yet, but I'm pretty sure we'll get to that point," Rogan said. "Right now, we're just trying to work together."

The energetic Drayton appreciates the players' approach and wants merely to sharpen a unit that led the SEC and ranked 11th nationally in kickoff return yards.

"Those guys were good at it last year," said Drayton, reunited with offensive coordinator Dave Clawson after an earlier stint together at Villanova. "It's not like I'm dealing with a ball of clay. I've got a foundation that was laid, and guys who from experience went from one scheme to another scheme and eventually had some success. They finished in the top 10 in the country (in kickoff returns), and I'm very honored to be able to coach a talented group like that.

"At the same time, I was able to present something in front of them that they already understood, and it's up to us to try and make it better. Wow, I'm glad to hear that they're embracing it that way, and I have the exact same passion they have in trying to make it the best in the country."

Players, passion

Like his players, Brooks acknowledges the potential for greatness on special teams.

"It could be. It's still all got to shake out and get in place," Brooks said. "But we've got some dynamics at returner and some guys who can put their hands on a kick. Obviously, you count on getting a guy like Britton getting back, and Chad's done some good things. You've got a chance."

Further, Brooks said, the players' approach -- on top of obvious talent -- is key. Already there is talk of trying to block four or five kicks this season.

"I can set goals, but if they set goals that can mean so much to them in trying to get those things accomplished," the veteran coach said. "As a unit, if you can get a competition going or something where if one guy blocks a kick and he's trying to rib the other guy to go get one, you can get some other guys going. We've got some guys really working at it."

For Lincoln, the motivation is to again compete for a title.

"I want us to win a championship," he said. "And any way I can help us do it, I don't care what it is, I don't care how long it takes or how much effort it takes, I want to help us hang another banner here. I want to help us get back to Atlanta."

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