With everybody returning for Tennessee football on special teams, the Volunteers may have the Southeastern Conference’s best kicking game.
On paper, there are lots of SEC teams drawing more attention for their special teams unit than Tennessee football. But when it comes to potential, the Vols may have the best in the conference, and nobody knows it yet.
Conventional wisdom says the Florida Gators have the best special teams unit. That makes clear sense. Evan McPherson is an elite kicker, Tommy Townsend is an elite punter, and they even have an elite return specialist in Kadarius Toney. Competing with them are the Auburn Tigers, who have an elite kicker in Anders Carlson and an elite punter in Arryn Siposs.
All those players we named made All-SEC somewhere. Meanwhile, the Georgia Bulldogs have who is on paper the best kicker in the SEC in Rodrigo Blankenship, and the Missouri Tigers are even generating news with their kicker in Tucker McCann. The LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies both have recognized punters in Zach Von Rosenberg and Braden Mann respectively.
When it came to Tennessee football, all they had was Marquez Callaway, who made it on there as a return specialist. But every other player on their special teams unit could turn out to be the best at his position this year.
Let’s start with place-kicker. Blankenship was 19-of-23 last year in his third full season starting. Brent Cimaglia was in his first full season, and he went 10-of-13 with one of his kicks being blocked. Sure, Blankenship was 8-of-10 from beyond 40, but Cimaglia was 4-of-6 on that range, and that range was where one of his kicks was blocked.
Is it unreasonable to assume that with a full year of experience now and better protection for him up front that Cimaglia can’t rival the play of the guy unanimously recognized as the best place-kicker in the SEC? Of course it isn’t! And by the way, Cimaglia hasn’t yet missed an extra point and also nailed a 50-plus yarder while splitting duties with Aaron Medley in 2017.
So the guy clearly has the power, and he has proven to have the accuracy. All he needed was a full year, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t be as good as anybody on this list when the season takes off.
Punter is a bit of a different story. Joe Doyle was No. 11 in the league in yards per punt at 41.1. However, that was his first year punting. History shows that punters take a major leap their sophomore year. Dustin Colquitt, for instance, averaged 39.6 yards a punt as a freshman. Britton Colquitt averaged 41.2 yards a punt, just slightly better than Doyle.
As a result, expectations are reasonable for Doyle to shoot up this list. After all, he did have a punt go beyond 70 yards last year, so he has the leg. And even if he doesn’t work out, Paxton Brooks is a backup, and he entered Tennessee football with the same accolades Tommy Townsend had out of high school. He is an elite kickoff specialist, really filling the kickoff roles.
If Callaway lives up to his hype as a return specialist, and he does have two career punt return touchdowns, then the Vols could potentially have an All-SEC kicker, punter and returner by the end of the year. Their kicker and punter just needed to get into a rhythm. And they need better interior blocking to avoid any rushes, and that’s something Jeremy Pruitt likely rectified this year.
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For a bit of icing on the cake, we then have kickoff returns to cover. Ty Chandler returned a kickoff for a touchdown his first year with Tennessee football. Meanwhile, Eric Gray, a four-star recruit who plays running back, has dazzled everybody with his elite skills this fall camp. It’s very possible one of them becomes the primary returner.
When you look at where the Vols stand on special teams, it’s representative of what Pruitt emphasized at SEC Media Days, that they were on the potential side of things. One step forward for all of the players, particularly the kickers and punters who were in their first year starting last year, could mean a dramatic jump.
A new coordinator of the unit in Kevin Sherrer may change things up a bit, and we have no idea if that’s good or bad for UT. One issue last year was the hands team executing perfectly placed surprise onside kicks. They never got one. If the unit as a whole takes a step forward and Sherrer rectifies that issue, watch out for how great it could be.