By Josh Ward
Spring practice will offer Tennessee an opportunity to continue building an overlooked part of the game: special teams.
Led by coach Mike Ekeler, Tennessee’s special teams have adopted an aggressive mindset that’s led to difference-making plays the last two seasons.
Tennessee hasn’t been perfect on special teams, but the Vols have been solid while working through personnel limitations. Roster upgrades this offseason should provide a fix.
Let’s start with kick and punt coverage. The Vols will offer early playing time to several newcomers through special teams.
This will be a good way for young players to get on the field as they continue to develop at their respective positions. Tennessee has more talent to choose from than it did the last two years.
More speed and athleticism on coverage units should lead to better results. Tennessee’s kickers – which we’ll get to in a moment – will have more trust in the team’s coverages.
This is just naming a few, but freshman linebackers Arion Carter and Jalen Smith and defensive backs Christian Conyer, Rickey Gibson and John Slaughter are all candidates to help on special teams coverage.
Now to the kicking part. Placekicker Chase McGrath is gone. The competition to replace him will feature JT Carver and Charles Campbell, who transferred to Tennessee from Indiana.
Campbell served as the Hoosiers’ starting placekicker the last three seasons. He was perfect on extra points and solid on field goals – hitting 4-of-5 field goals from 40-49 yards last year and making one of his two attempts from 50+ yards.
Punter is a bigger unknown. The Vols have to replace Paxton Brooks, who served as the Vols’ starting punter going back to the middle of the 2019 season (and also handled kickoff duties).
Jackson Ross will battle Kolby Morgan for the position. Expect Ross to go in as the favorite to win the job. The soon-to-be 24-year-old has an interesting story, having arrived at Tennessee last year as a freshman from Melbourne, Australia, after playing Australian Rules Football for Hawthorn Football Club.
Finally, the return game.
Dee Williams made a splash after returning from injury midway through the 2022 season. He returned a punt for a touchdown against Vanderbilt and averaged more than 18 yards per return.
Williams has the ability to make game-changing plays as a returner.
Tennessee will give several players a chance to win the kick return job.
Jimmy Holiday handled the Vols’ kick return duties last season but transferred to Western Kentucky following the regular season.
Williams and Dylan Sampson each returned a kick in the Orange Bowl. Freshman Cameron Seldon is one of the top athletes in the 2023 class and should receive an opportunity in the return game.
Tennessee will face questions about its special teams having to replace all three kicking positions.
But improved depth and more athletes to choose from should help improve the unit as a whole.
Let the competition begin.
Here are links to the following position previews: