No. 19 Tennessee hits stride at returns with help from young players Print
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Wednesday, 14 November 2007 00:06
NCAAF Headline News

 KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -Give Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge 30 or 40 yards on a kickoff or punt return, and he'll almost guarantee points on the board.
``If you start on the 40 with the good kicker we have, we only need to get 25 yards to get in field-goal range for Daniel (Lincoln) to make a great kick,'' Ainge said. ``We obviously aren't trying to settle for field goals, but that's always in the back of your mind when you're playing a good team.
``You always need points.''
Lately, getting yards on kickoff and punt returns hasn't been much of a problem for 19th-ranked Tennessee (7-3, 4-2 Southeastern Conference), which earlier in the year struggled with inconsistency.
Heading into the South Carolina game three weeks ago, the Vols were averaging 22.8 yards on a kickoff return, ranking them 39th nationally and fifth in the SEC. Their current 25.1 yards a kickoff return is now the seventh best in the country and the SEC's top.
The Vols were last in the conference in average yards on a punt return before facing Mississippi State five weeks ago. They've more than doubled that average to 7.7 yards a punt return since then, improving them to eighth in the conference.
``We weren't really nearly where we wanted to be, and usually kickoff returns and punt returns gets back to the person that's doing them,'' coach Phillip Fulmer said.
After having averaged 12.1 yards a punt last year, Jonathan Hefney began this season as the Vols' lead punt return specialist but proved to be inconsistent. Hefney had strong runs against Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State, but posted negative return yards against Arkansas State.
Fulmer said he felt the cornerback was spending a little too much time on the field on defense to be returning punts and decided to try freshman Dennis Rogan at the job two weeks ago. Rogan's one return against Louisiana-Lafayette didn't amount to much, but he fielded four punts against Arkansas last week for an average of 8 yards a return.
``We really worked him hard for a number of weeks in practice, letting him handle all the different situations that could come up because that's a huge exchange of field position,'' Fulmer said. ``Because he's fresher, because he's got some dynamics of his own, I think he's added a lot to our punt return game.''
The timing of Rogan's success couldn't be better. After the Vols face Vanderbilt (5-5, 2-5) this weekend, they travel to Kentucky, which is the nation's fifth-best team at covering punt returns.
Rogan's biggest play last week actually came on a kickoff that he took at the 7-yard line before running 78 yards to set up a Lincoln field goal. Freshman running back Lennon Creer also took a kickoff against Arkansas and returned it 32 yards to set up a touchdown drive.
Fulmer said he hopes to also use freshmen receivers Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones on future kickoff returns.
``With dynamics of speed and ability with the ball, they've done really well,'' Fulmer said. ``The young players in general have added a real spark to our team.''
 

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