KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — With a little over a week to go before Tennessee’s season opener, freshman tailback Marlin Lane lined up under the lights of Neyland Stadium during a mock game, ready to return the punt headed his way. The ball bounced out of his hands.
Coach Derek Dooley winced as he watched, reminded of the Volunteers’ struggles fielding punts and kickoffs that caused him at one point during the 2010 season to wonder aloud if Tennessee had set a record for fumbles on returns.
“That was a part of the script,” Dooley joked after the Aug. 24 mock game. “We script everything so we don’t get a crazy reaction. It’s actually his second drop of fall camp. Second out of a lot. I’ll be thinking about it for the next 10 days.”
Dooley put extra emphasis on punt and kickoff returns during this year’s fall camp, though injuries have left him with a game-time decision on who will get the first shot at fielding them heading into Saturday’s opener against Montana.
Six different Vols were responsible for eight fumbles on punts or kickoffs, either when the ball first touched their hands or at the end of a return. Four of the five muffed punts were lost to the other team, as was one of the three fumbled kickoffs. Dooley was so exasperated by November that he chose not to field anyone on some returns rather than risk another turnover.
Anthony Anderson ended the season as Tennessee’s primary punt returner, but he had his own muffed punt that ended up in the hands of Vanderbilt’s Dexter Daniels in the third quarter of a 24-10 Vols win on Nov. 20.
“If you touch the ball, you’ve got to catch it,” Anderson said. “I told (Lane) he has his freebie. I had my freebie against Vanderbilt. I just made a bad decision. I told him to just stay focused and don’t worry about dropping the ball. Worry about catching it. Don’t think of a negative, think of a positive output. He was like, ‘All right,’ and rubbed it off and said, ‘I ain’t going to drop no more.”
Dooley had hoped to rely on tailback Devrin Young, who returned punts throughout high school, but the freshman broke his collarbone at the beginning of August. Young began practicing with the special teams this week, but Dooley said the freshman is several weeks away from being able to be hit.
Another freshman tailback, Tom Smith, suffered a knee injury that limited him during the second half of fall camp, leaving Anderson, Lane and sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter as the likely candidates to handle punt returns for the first few weeks of the season.
Anderson said the trio has spent a lot of time catching punts before and after practice and trying not to second-guess themselves after making mistakes.
“We’re definitely consistent on catching the ball this year,” the wide receiver said. “We’ve been working on catching the ball all year long. It’s paying off because we’re getting better confidence on judging the ball, especially the young guys.”
Sophomore wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers and senior running back Tauren Poole are expected to handle kickoff return duties, thanks to both their size and speed.
“I always like a little heavier guy at kickoff return because these guys are coming at you full speed and you can take some big hits,” Dooley said. “So they bring good size, they’re good runners with the ball, and they’re just good, dependable players. Da’Rick broke one last year against Kentucky, so he’s showing some capability that he can spit one.”
The one Rogers broke was a 78-yard kickoff return to open the game, but he also had his own “freebie” a few weeks later against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl when he coughed up the ball after a 21-yard kickoff return that was recovered by teammate Nigel Mitchel-Thornton.
That didn’t damage his confidence, though.
“I love it. Open field. To me, it’s just I’m back there in space, I’m fast and I’m big, I break tackles well, so I mean, I’m just going to get to running and see who can tackle me,” Rogers said. “The only nerves I have is, ‘Aw, man I’ve got to slow myself down from celebrating when I hit the end zone,’ that’s all it is.”