KNOXVILLE — In the recent history of the Tennessee-Georgia football series, special teams has warranted special attention.
The kicking game has been a decisive factor in each of the past four meetings between the Southeastern Conference rivals.
Last year, Georgia placekicker Blair Walsh set a career high with 14 points — including four field goals — in a 26-14 Bulldogs victory.
The Volunteers blocked a punt in both the 2006 and 2007 meetings, winning both contests.
In 2005, Thomas Flowers’ punt return for a touchdown sparked a 27-14 win for the Bulldogs over a Tennessee team then ranked in the top 10.
Right now, Lane Kiffin’s Vols (2-3, 0-2) need a leg up in the kicking game — particularly on its coverage units. Tennessee has been gashed for long returns in three straight ballgames, and continued issues in that facet against Auburn led to harsh words by Kiffin in the postgame locker room.
“He was just basically saying for the starters and people that have been here, he would be upset if he was them,” true freshman Darren Myles Jr. told Volquest.com this week, summarizing Kiffin’s words after the 26-22 loss. “He would be the first one in the office asking to be put on special teams if it was him.”
The Vols currently are last in the SEC in kickoff coverage.
“I don’t know how you could emphasize it more,” Kiffin said. “I’ll be shocked if we don’t play well on kickoff coverage this week.”
That’s only part of the puzzle. Tennessee also still is seeking its first big play in the return game. It hasn’t happened yet. A 35-yard kickoff return and 21-yard punt return mark the season highs through five contests.
Georgia’s overall return numbers are modest as well, but the Bulldogs do have a touchdown in that area — a 100-yarder by Brandon Boykin against South Carolina.
The big difference for the Dawgs (3-2, 1-1), however, is punting. Drew Butler leads the SEC and the entire Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging 49.8 yards per punt.
FAMILIAR FOES: Twelve members of UT’s current roster hail from Georgia, the greatest contingent from any state other than Tennessee.
Vols punter Chad Cunningham hails from Dawsonville, Ga., about an hour away from the Georgia campus.
Chris Scott, Tennessee’s left tackle, was offered a scholarship by the Bulldogs. So was Eric Berry, the Vols’ All-America safety, who might have the most unique connection with a player on the other side. Reshad Jones, a safety for Georgia, escorted Berry’s cousin to a high-school homecoming.
“I treat my cousin like my sister and I said, ‘Hey, take care of her,’ ” Berry said.
WATCHING WITTEN: Tight end Luke Stocker always locks in on one particular player whenever the Dallas Cowboys are playing on TV.
“I’m not watching Tony Romo. I’m watching Jason Witten and his technique,” Stocker said.
The Elizabethton native and former Vol standout has given Stocker advice from time to time. Stocker noted he always learns something when observing Witten.
“People always say he’s always open. That’s because he gets such great separation,” Stocker said.