Heading into Tennessee’s first football season under Josh Heupel, Heupel, offensive coordinator Alex Golesh and defensive coordinator Tim Banks continually praised their players’ effort, but were otherwise cautious given the unknowns ahead. .
Not so with special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler.
“We should trash the workshop,” Ekeler said last August.
Looking back, the Volunteers were indeed strong in the third phase of the sport and have plenty of reason to be optimistic in the months to come despite the loss of Velus Jones Jr., who led the Southeastern Conference in punt returns with an average of 15.1 yards and ranked second. at kickoff returns with a 27.3-yard clip before earning a Senior Bowl invite and positioning for this week’s NFL Draft.
Jones was a sixth-year senior who started his career in Southern California before being traded, 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-pound Newport Beach, Calif., was 12 of 16 field goal attempts for a 75.0 percent accuracy clip, the highest for a Tennessee kicker since the stellar by Brent Cimaglia. 2019 season in which he went 23 of 27 (85.2%).
“Coming here has been an amazing experience, and I’m really grateful for that,” McGrath said this month. “I had a lot of fun.”
McGrath’s last attempt last year was his 56-yard miss on the final regulation play in a 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue at the Music City Bowl. He described being motivated by this and said he became more comfortable at this distance.
Tennessee averaged 25.4 yards on kickoff returns last season while giving up 21.2 yards, but in no area have the Vols been more dominant than punt returns. As Jones did his part to increase field position, Paxton Brooks threw 45 times for an average of 44.0 yards.
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 hard, and it’s also because he has a five-second suspension time,” Ekeler said this month. “I could have jogged there and covered some of them.”
Brooks, a 6-foot-6, 195-pound fifth-year senior from Lexington, South Carolina, had 11 punts last season from over 50 yards. His impressive season included a Saturday when he was not needed at all – the 62-24 victory at Missouri in which the Vols did not punt for the first time since the 2009 opener against the western Kentucky.
Only Coastal Carolina has allowed fewer punt return yards than Tennessee.
“There’s 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 I can improve is important.”
Brooks started last season managing kickoffs as well as punts, but after seven kickoffs in Bowling Green’s opener and one in Game 2 against Pittsburgh, he was replaced by Toby Wilson, who is also a fifth-year senior. By putting too much strain on his groin muscles, Brooks had to give up his throwing duties, but he fought Wilson this spring for the right to get them back.
Craig Colquitt, Britton Colquitt and Trevor Daniel are three former Tennessee punters whom Brooks has formed relationships with, and he also hopes to leave Knoxville among the all-time greats.
“When they’re in town, I ask them anything and everything,” Brooks said. “There’s definitely a bloodline of bettors as every Tennessee fan knows.”
The biggest task for Ekeler will be figuring out who replaces Jones, noting that junior receiver Jimmy Holiday, fifth-year senior safety Trevon Flowers and first-year receiver Marquarius “Squirrel” White faced each other this spring. What he doesn’t care about is who’s kicking.
“We have guys that I think are absolute pros,” Ekeler said. “The way they run their business is like it’s Sunday right now.”
Robinson in the portal
Second-year Redshirt offensive lineman James Robinson, a 6-4, 335-pounder from Montgomery, Alabama, entered the transfer gate this weekend. Robinson’s only appearance for the Vols came last season against Bowling Green.
He was a three-star guard prospect in the 2020 signing class.