General Robert Neyland's sixth Maxim: Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.
All seven of Neyland's Maxims of Football are true, but so far this season none has rang as true as maxim number six. The kicking game and special teams in general has been a point of contention for Vols fans everywhere. It has cost the team field position, points, and in a way pride.
Obviously, this is something that the coaches are aware of and have addressed. From missed field goals, to blocked punts, and short kickoffs; there isn't a place in terms of kicking that Tennessee doesn't need to improve. But the kicking game is not just about the "kicking" of the ball.
It also encompasses coverage as well as returns. In all but punt returns, the Vols have excelled so far. I'm not going to harp on kicking the ball, we all know what the problems are there and how bad it is. I want to focus on the rest of the special teams game, the good and the bad.
So far this season, Tennessee has been solid in kick and punt coverage. Kicker Michael Palardy has not made it easy for the Vols, he only has three touchbacks in 27 kickoffs (Matt Darr has kicked off once) through four games and rarely does the ball travel inside the 5 yard line and one kick has gone out of bounds.
This typically does not bode well for the coverage unit and gives the opposition relatively good starting field position. Tennessee has done a very good job of limiting the yards gained on kick returns despite the kick off woes.
Through 28 total kick offs this season, the Vols kick coverage unit has held opponents to an average of 17.6 yards per return. To me, that's very impressive considering the circumstances. The team ranks 7th in the SEC, but that is only because of the lack of touchbacks by Palardy.
Punt coverage has been better than decent as well. Of the 10 punts the Vols have gotten off (they have punted 12 times but two have been blocked), only five have been returnable. That is a combination of high hanging punts as well as hustle on the coverage team.
The other five have been returned for a grand total of 35 yards, which is a seven yard average. Not too bad for a team of freshmen and sophomores, and worlds better for a team that gave up numerous touchdowns and big punt returns in 2009 and 2010. The punt coverage unit has also recovered a fumble.
This aspect of the return game was electric towards the end of 2010, with Da'Rick Rogers almost taking one to the house against Kentucky. They haven't been what everyone thought they would be so far this season, but they aren't atrocious either. The team as a whole is averaging 21.7 yards on 15 attempts. With Justin Hunter going down though, Dooley has taken Da'Rick off of kick returns and understandably so. Though I wouldn't worry to much about that.
As solid as returning the 15 kickoff's has been, returning the nine returnable punts has been abysmal except one. Eight punt returns have netted the team a total of 36 yards, which is awful. Until last Saturday, the only bright spot on punt returns is that there has only been one muffed punt, which is far and away a much better stat than anything put up last season.
2010 saw Coach Dooley opt to rush 11 instead of having a guy deep to receive the punt for fear of the inevitable turnover. This hasn't been the case so far though.
So what made Saturday different on punt returns, and why should Vols fans not be worried about kick return production going down with the absence of Da'Rick Rogers on "teams"?
The answer is simple, and rather diminutive.
The answer stands a mere 5'8" and weighs a "hefty" 165lbs, wears #19 and answers to the name Devrin Young.
Young made his much awaited debut for the Volunteers Saturday against Buffalo, and he started with a bang. The Knoxville native made if perfectly clear why the coaches wanted him so badly by taking the Bulls first punt 43 yards.
If not for a loss of footing, he would have been able to coast into the endzone. This single return topped the sum of all eight of the teams previous attempts. He showed an incredible instinct, quickness, and ability to make guys miss in space that this team has not seen in quite some time on special teams.
The Vols have desperately needed a natural return man, and it appears they have one. Not only did he make a splash on his first punt return, but he also totaled 51 yards on two kick returns. There was a downer on his tremendous debut though. He put a kick return on the ground in the fourth quarter, which was the Vols second turnover in the return game on the day.
This is something that Coach Dooley has had Young working on during the two weeks he has been back from a broken collarbone. For the duration of each practice, Devrin is required to always have a football in hand, and anybody is allowed to try and knock it out. If he fumbles, he is reminded of what not to do. Hopefully this tactic works and he eliminates these mistakes as the season progresses.
The Vols face off against UGA this Saturday in Neyland Stadium. On paper, the two teams look fairly evenly matched. The place where Tennessee has an edge is kick/punt coverage, and now it appears they have a weapon in both phases as well.
Coverage is a place UGA has struggled this season, giving up an average of 19.9 yards in kick returns and 14.8 in punt returns including a punt returned for a touchdown in Oxford, MS. The potential for Devrin to make a difference in this game is huge with both defenses playing some pretty good ball. He will get his fair share of opportunities in both phases of the return game.
The worth of a player like Young is undeniable and something that has hampered Tennessee since Dooley has arrived and then some.
Now, the Vols are one step closer to being a complete team, and if they can get solid production out of Young consistently, it will make things a lot easier for the already high powered Vol offense to put points on the board, and at the very least control the field position game.
Maxim No. 6 talks about pressing the kicking game because of the breaks being made there, and it could be the breaking point in this Saturday's contest. It's more than just actually kicking the ball, it's coverage, and returns. Two of the three phases of special teams are looking special now, thanks to Devrin Young. Just how special, only time will tell.
We will all find out come 7 p.m. Saturday night.