On Saturday in the Tennessee Volunteers’ 59-30 win over Bowling Green, Tennessee dominated in many aspects of the game, but one of the more undervalued ways the Vols won was in the kicking game. The Volunteers have seen vast improvement on special teams under coach Butch Jones, scoring a touchdown on special teams each of the last two years. While the special teams never got the ball in the end zone, they broke multiple long returns, blocked a field goal, and provided outstanding coverage all game. This post aims to take an in-depth view at a few of these plays that don’t typically get the attention they deserve.
The biggest plays for the special teams came courtesy of Cameron Sutton and the punt return team. Sutton is an All-American caliber cornerback, but also provides the Vols with one of the better punt returners in the nation. After averaging a solid 11.3 yards per return a season ago, Sutton exploded against Bowling Green with 102 yards on three returns.
The first came early in the game, after the Falcons’ second possession of the game. Here you can see the Falcons’ punt formation. They are using a 2 man shield with the left tackle split into the slot and a wing on the right. The Volunteers line up with one defender over each man on the line of scrimmage, with two linebackers.
The Volunteers run a very simple middle return. Everyone from Dillon Bates to the right side of the field is to block their man to the right, and everyone to the left of Bates is blocking to the left. This will create a gap in between the right guard and tackle.
Right off the bat we see a few things. First, Darrell Miller and Chris Weatherd are both in excellent trail position on the edge. They are to “trail and harass” all the way down the field. This means they sprint on the slightly behind the coverage player’s inside hip and harass him by trying to bump him outside until it is time for the block.
Second, Bates and Darrin Kirkland Jr. do an outstanding job of holding up their men. Next, Cortez McDowell and Ralph David Abernathy IV were responsible for coming off each edge and defending against any fake. They will now block the two shield players. Finally, Max Arnold will come back towards the line to block the wing.
When the ball hits the ground, you can tell that Sutton is in a really great spot. The closest defender is 20 yards away and the blockers are in position to open up the middle. As long as the blockers execute, there is a running lane right between Bates and Elliott Berry.
By the time Sutton picks up the bouncing ball, the situation is still pretty good. Weatherd gets to make the block special teams players dream of (or have nightmares about) and knocks his man to the ground. Moseley is still doing an outstanding job on one edge, and Miller has forced his man so far outside that he can no longer make a play.
The long snapper is now the man to beat. Elliott Berry is too far behind in trail and was not able to make his block. It is no matter however. Sutton still has plenty of room to run and not many long snappers are going to be able to take him down one-on-one in the open field.
Sutton gets around the snapper and now he’s in the open field. We see McDowell is doing an awesome job of controlling his man, and has driven him well outside the numbers. Sutton would appear to have a clear path to the end zone to the right, with only the punter to beat. Instead, he cut it back inside and was eventually tackled, but not until he had picked up 47 yards.
For Sutton’s next return, the Vols went with the same scheme. Bates and everyone to his right are going to block to the right, and everyone to his left will block left, opening up the middle.
Once again, the Vols win at the line of scrimmage. On the left, Moseley, Quart’e Sapp, and Bates all do an outstanding job. On the right, Kirkland is in good position to pick up his man and Weatherd has secured his man. McDowell and Abernathy are again in position to defend a fake and block the shield players. The only negative is Darrell Miller gets beat inside and has to hold to regain position. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) he was not flagged.
When Sutton fields the ball, he once again has a lot of green grass in front of him, and only the long snapper in position for the tackle. Advantage: Sutton. The star corner literally ran by the poor snapper and ended up with a 34 yard gain before one of the shield players slowed him down.
I hope these plays help you realize that while Sutton is an outstanding returner, these plays are only possible because of the great blocks across the board. Guys like Cortez McDowell, Emmanuel Moseley, Quart’e Sapp, Dillon Bates, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Darrell Miller, and Chris Weatherd made these big returns possible by doing an OUTSTANDING job of working together as a team and making their blocks. Butch Jones and Mark Elder have done an excellent job of preparing these players to play and getting them ready to make an impact in the kicking game.
One more big play in the kicking game came when Brian Randolph came through to block a 43 yard field goal attempt in the third quarter. Since the kick is attempted from the right hash, the Vols called for a rush off the left edge.
Tennessee’s scheme is very simple. The Volunteers lined up two defensive linemen, end Derek Barnett and tackle Danny O’Brien, over the offensive left tackle and guard. The Vols put Randolph directly behind the two linemen. This is a three-on-two advantage for Tennessee.
O’Brien attacks the guard’s inside shoulder. Barnett attacks the tackle’s outside shoulder. Ideally, this would open a gap in between the two blockers for Randolph to come through. Both players executed their jobs very well. O’Brien was able to slant inside and tackle the guard with him. Barnett actually overpowered the tackle and took him to the ground. Randolph came through the middle untouched and got his hand on the kick.
Here’s the video.
Even though Randolph got the block, just as much credit goes to O’Brien and Barnett. They opened up the gap, and Randolph finished the play. Great team effort.
The Volunteers’ new punter, walk-on Trevor Daniel, had about as good of a first game as you could have hoped for. Daniel punted three times, and each one was a booming punt that had excellent hang time. On his first attempt, he forced a fair catch at the 6 yard line. His second punt went 61 yards and to the 6 yard line once again, but a missed tackle led to a 20 yard return
We are going to look at Daniel’s third and final punt of the day. This punt travels 46 yards with excellent hang time. As a true freshman in 2014, Cortez McDowell was the Vols best coverage player and he appears to be even better in 2015. Playing the right guard spot, he refuses to be blocked and is the first man downfield. While he did not make the tackle, he was able to slow down the returner and left guard Chris Weatherd came through for his second special teams tackle of the day.
As you watch this play, just look at how fast the Volunteers coverage players get off the line and beat their blockers. Now compare it to what you saw when the Falcons were punting. This is exactly the opposite of what we saw when Bowling Green was punting. Tennessee’s coverage players do an outstanding job of getting downfield. Three guys (McDowell, Weatherd, and Kirkland) are in position for a tackle as soon as the punt is caught.
Overall, I hope you have seen how well coached the Vols are in the kicking game. A lot of special teams is mental, and Coach Jones has done a great job of getting his young athletes to buy in and give 100% in the kicking game. You can tell how important the kicking game is to Jones when you see starters like Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Evan Berry, and Emmanuel Moseley playing on multiple units. This shows the younger players like Kirkland and McDowell how important special teams is. Tennessee dominated the kicking game on Saturday, and I didn’t even have time to look at some of the great kickoff coverage by the Vols and Evan Berry’s 67 yard kickoff return. Jones and has staff have excelled at preparing their players to win in the third phase of the game.
In case you ever wondered what players were involved on the kicking units, I listed the Volunteers starters on each of the “Core 4” special teams units below. Max Arnold and Darrin Kirkland Jr. are the only players to start on all four teams, and Cortez McDowell is the only player to appear on three teams. After Tennessee built a decent lead, starters like Sutton and Reeves-Maybin were kept off coverage units and replaced with younger players . The Vols rotated multiple players in on special teams, especially on kickoff coverage, but these were the starters.
Darrin Kirkland Jr.
Dylan Wiesman (couldn’t tell from the TV angle, but I’m pretty sure it’s Wiesman)
Ralph David Abernathy IV
Darrin Kirkland Jr.
Darrin Kirkland Jr.
Ralph David Abernathy IV