Special teams is by far the most overlooked aspect of a football game. Who cares about punting, right? But when it comes down to setting up the field position for a late drive, or even nailing the game-winning kick, that often-forgotten third phase of the game is just as crucial as the rest.
Leading the way up front is long snapper Matthew Salansky, Tennessee’s starting snapper from a year ago. The redshirt sophomore Salansky played in all 10 games in 2020 and successfully executed every snap on special teams – not one botched play. It was enough for the UT Sports website to have Salansky listed as the starter, with sophomore Will Albright as his backup.
Senior Paxton Brooks has a lock on the starting punter job, as well as the kickoff specialist. He has been the Vols’ primary kickoff specialist for the past three seasons, averaging 61.2 yards per kickoff with 61.5% of his kickoffs going for touchbacks.
Brooks has been equally as dominant as a punter, establishing himself as one of the conference’s best over the last season and a half. He’s averaged 42.1 yards per punt, including 19 of 50 or more yards, and 29 punts inside the 20. Brooks has already been named to the 2021 Ray Guy Award Watch List as well as to the Preseason All-SEC Second Team.
For the first time in a few seasons, the Vols are looking for an answer at placekicker, after 3.5-year starter Brent Cimaglia entered the transfer portal in January following the coaching change. That answer should come in redshirt senior Chase McGrath.
McGrath, a transfer from Southern California, is a four-year Power Five veteran who has connected on 76.2% of field goal attempts for his career. McGrath did not play in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but he is on the 2021 Lou Groza Award Watch List and figures to get the starting nod.
Finally, the Vols have a bit of a question mark when it comes to both kickoff and punt returners. Former return men Eric Gray and Ty Chandler both are no longer with the team. Velus Jones Jr. showed some promise last season, averaging 22 yards per return with a long return of 40 yards -- good enough to lead the SEC in kickoff return yards (398) -- but did not score a special teams touchdown.
In a recent media availability, special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler was cryptic, or perhaps insightful, when describing the characteristics of a return man.
“You don't really have to be a make-you-miss type guy, but you got to be a guy who can run through the doggone smoke,” Ekeler said of a kickoff returner. “You remember "Days of Thunder" when he dropped the hammer and went through the smoke? That's the video I showed them. That's what kickoff return is like, I mean you got bodies everywhere, man, and if you're scared, you better call 911.”
Ekeler was just as perceptive when describing the characteristics of a good punt returner.
“Punt return, now you look for a fart in a skillet,” Ekeler said straight-faced. “A guy who can make you miss, one cut, get vertical, that elusive guy. It's a little bit different and punt return, you know, it's not like kickoff (where) you've got everybody coming down, full boar, you've got windows and you've got space and you have levels so you can be more of a guy who's going to make more cuts inside and out.”
With his dynamic speed, Jones Jr. could be that guy for the Vols on both kickoff and punt returns. Or perhaps graduate transfer JaVonta Payton could fill that role in some capacity. He was Mississippi State’s top special teams tackler for the past two seasons while averaging 20.2 yards per return.
“We've got a lot of dudes, man” Ekeler said. “A lot of RLDs, real live dudes, that are flying around and we should wreck shop.”