Vols seek more from specialists, return units
With consistency the hallmark word for what Tennessee's coaches are seeking, it was another inconsistent special teams day for the Vols Wednesday evening on Haslam Field.
Freshman place-kicker Aaron Medley has shown perhaps the most signs of growth, from drilling his only field-goal attempt Sept. 13 at Oklahoma to just an overall different level of focus --- most days --- on the practice field.
Special teams coach Mark Elder noted that the Vols use everything from sound effects to positive peer pressure in trying to get their specialists as game-ready as possible --- especially a true-freshman kicker like Medley.
"Well, we try to put them in as similar a situation as we can on gameday. Whether it be the noise, whether it be some pressure situations bringing all the guys up and saying, 'Hey, we have to run if you don't connect on this field goal.' We're trying to do as much as we can to make it game-like," Elder told VolQuest.com. "When you put someone in that situation and they start to get comfortable in adverse situations, they'll be more comfortable when it gets to game day. So that's certainly what we're trying to do. I don't think that there's anything quite like being out there on the field with 100,000 people watching you, but we try to do as much to simulate that as possible. I think it helps."
Added the former Under Armour All-America selection Medley, "As I was running out onto the field [at Oklahoma], I said to myself I've made a kick from that spot probably hundreds of times. There's really nothing different. Field goals are still the same distance apart, it's still a hundred-yard field. It's really just thinking of it as a home game, and focus on what you have to do. …
"Just coming in and treating everything like it's the same. Treating practice like it's a game, and really just focusing on two or three things that you have to do. I think [the practice environment] helped me a lot, just getting comfortable with adversity. You never know what's going to happen."
Both Medley and George Bullock had some struggles with kickoffs on Wednesday, but that was one day after coach Butch Jones praised Medley's growth, specifically in that area and in his overall acclimation to the college game.
"I see Aaron's confidence continuing to grow and grow and grow," Jones said. "It's like we did a kickoff competition today with accuracy and the depth of the kick, and he did well. I think with the more live-game situations that he's put into, and he's done for the most part pretty well, I think you see a young man whose confidence continues to grow."
Elder, who was non-committal in terms of whether Medley or Bullock would handle kickoff duties at Georgia on Saturday; Medley is the clear-cut specialist on offense, said ball location on kickoffs --- a point stressed weekly by this staff --- becomes even more paramount against a gifted return man like the Bulldogs' Todd Gurley, who energized Georgia's season-opening win with a kickoff return for a touchdown against Clemson.
"Any time you have an explosive returner like Gurley, that's important. It's important that you're putting the ball in the right place because the coverage unit is expecting the ball to be there," Elder explained. "It's extremely important for us that we put it in the right spots, and it's extremely important that we read the blocking schemes well. We have to wrap up and get the ball on the ground."
Following another rough day from the punt team on Wednesday, Elder said flatly that the key is getting redshirt-senior punter Matt Darr to perform with consistency rather than the inconsistency that has marked Darr's first three games of the 2014 season.
"He needs to be consistent," Elder said of Darr, who didn't have a punt of at least 40 yards at Oklahoma. "What you do on the practice field is going to be what you do on game day."
Elder also emphasized the Vols are not remotely where they need to be in either aspect of their return units --- kickoff or punt. Tennessee only has returned two punts on the season --- one apiece by starter Cam Sutton and backup Jacob Carter --- and has been largely bottled up on kickoff returns as well.
"We're not playing with hand grenades, so close doesn't really count for much right now," Elder deadpanned. "Being close is not what we're looking for; we're looking for being there. We want to have good returns. We're not there right now, in punt return and kickoff return.
"Kickoff return we had one blocked well. Punt return we had one good punt return on a mis-hit punt. We've got to do a better job as far as the blocking for both of those units."