While sometimes overlooked, the special teams can provide the winning edge when it comes to tight matchups. Look for Tennessee to continue to put an emphasis on solid special teams. Here’s what Vols fans can expect this upcoming fall.
Up front, Matthew Salansky is the only returning long snapper. Last season, Salansky sat behind fifth-year senior Riley Lovingood. Salansky will likely compete with incoming snapper Will Albright for the job. According to his Twitter and recruiting websites, Albright allegedly is coming to Tennessee on a full scholarship, something that can be sometimes rare at the long snapper position.
The punter position will almost certainly be filled by Paxton Brooks. Brooks, who played the lion’s share of the snaps last season, solidified his hold on the spot when competing punter Joe Doyle entered the transfer portal at the end of last season. Doyle had a spectacular freshman season, earning freshman All-America honor. During the season he had the most punts in the SEC while, also having the fewest return yards the conference. However, he saw less playing time his sophomore year and is currently looking for a new school.
Brooks punted the ball very well this past year, boasting a 42.0-yard average and getting 11 of his 30 punts within the 20-yard line. Brooks also played well in the kickoff specialist role, a position he is expected to retain this upcoming season. He converted 46 of his 64 kickoffs into touchbacks, a clip of 71.88%, good enough for 13th in the nation. In addition, Brooks will most likely act as the holder on field goals and extra points.
And the man Brooks will be holding for will be Brent Cimaglia. Cimaglia is coming off what was one of the best season performances for a kicker in Vols football history. The then-junior from Nashville was 23 of 27 on field goals including two over 50 yards and made all 69 extra points that he attempted throughout the season. He finished seventh in the nation in kicking and was second in the conference in both number of field goals and field goal percentage.
In the return game, Tennessee will be looking to replace Marquez Callaway, who was a standard in the punt return unit. For kick return, Ty Chandler has the most experience but the Vols did not actually return many kicks in the prior season. Possible options include breakout star Eric Gray would Jeremy Pruitt to utilize one of his key players in another facet. Another interesting option for Tennessee would be South California transfer Velus Jones Jr. The speedy wide receiver would definitely add big play potential to either return unit. While Jones on punts and the tandem of Chandler and Gray on kicks appears to be the most likely scenario, both slots will be the site of competition going into week one.