As we crawl toward kickoff of the 2012 football season, we follow up our look at the kicking game in the UT-Pack matchup with a look at the return men. (A look at photshoppable screaming assistant coaches will have to wait.)
T.J. Graham brought 2 kicks and 2 punts to la casa in his four years as a return man for the Pack, and the speedster had 4 receptions of 60+ yards as a senior. He was 18th in the nation in punt return average a year ago and holds the ACC record for career kick return yardage. For good measure, after three years of focusing on football, he returned to the track and was fast enough to earn second team All America honors in the 60 meters at the NCAA indoor championships. The Buffalo Bills thought enough of his speed and playmaking ability to select him with the 69th pick in the NFL draft.
Bottom line: T.J. Graham was really, really fast, and he was a threat to take it the distance every time the ball was in his hands.
But he's gone. And just who will take his place, and whether or not that individual or individuals can match Graham's explosiveness, is very much up in the air for the Pack.
(For a look at Graham's potential replacements and Tennessee's answer in the return game, continue below the jump.)
Redshirt senior Tobias Palmer emerged as a threat in the passing game a year ago, and with 37 receptions he is the Pack's leading holdover at the wide receiver position. He is also the most experienced kick returner, but that just highlights how inexperienced the Pack will be at this spot. Palmer has just 3 returns to his credit. Though not quite a burner on Graham's level, Palmer was a standout track athlete in high school, and he has shown flashes of big play ability in the receiving game (40+ yarder against Clemson, 50+ yarder against Carolina, and a season-long of 65 yards). Palmer is the most likely Pack player to be waiting at the one when the season gets underway.
Other candidates to return kicks include C.J. Wilson, a senior DB who returned exactly one kick last year, and redshirt sophomore wideout Bryan Underwood. Wilson and Underwood have both shown big play ability; Wilson has 3 career INT returns for TDs, and Underwood's 79-yard TD grab in a win over Virgnia is a Pack freshman record.
Whoever gets the nod will likely find tough sledding against a UT special teams unit that allowed just 18.1 yards per return a year ago, good for 8th best in the country.
Just who will return punts is also up in the air, but two-way player Rashard Smith is the best bet. A redshirt junior who saw time at WR and DB last year, Smith fielded a pair of punts last year and looked to be the return man of the future before injuries derailed his freshman campaign.
An intriguing option for the Pack is record-setting ballhawk David Amerson, who grabbed 13 INTs last year and displayed some breathtaking return skills while taking two picks for quick sixes. Amerson is listed on the spring "organizational chart" as a possibility, and he would certainly have Wolfpack faithful out of their seats if he trotted back to receive a punt.
Whoever earns the role may find some running room against UT's struggling punting game. Not only did the Vols allow a couple of blocks last year, they also gave up an average of 10.2 yards per return (85th in the nation). Couple UT punter Matt Darr's average leg (38.1 yards per boot a year ago) and the Vols' tendency to give up a chunk of yardage on the return, and it appears that coming up with a competent return man could mean a major field position advantage for the Pack.
State had one of the stingiest punt cover units in the land last year, bottling up returners for an average of just 4.3 yards per attempt, good for 9th among FBS schools. The Pack were less impressive in the kicking game, yielding an average of 22.6 yards per kick return (61st in the nation).
Sophomore Dervin Young, a shifty little fella at 5-8, 171 pounds, will likely be the Vol trying to spring a long return against the Pack. Though he shared both duties at times, Young, a rising sophomore, had more kickoff and punt returns than any other holdover from 2011. Young's numbers were very solid if not overly frightening. He averaged 23.3 yards and 11.8 yards per kick and punt return, respectively. He showed big play ability against one of the nation's best teams, breaking a 60-yard kickoff return against LSU, and Young posted a long punt return of 43 yards. He did not have any returns for TDs.
In the matchup of kicking games, I gave the Pack a slight edge for two main reasons: one, State has an experienced, competent snapper, while UT is breaking in a new man at the position; two, UT's punter and kicker had up and down seasons and are being challenged for their jobs. An unsettled kicking game has to give a coach the heebee-jeebies.
Since State's return game is in flux, the edge in this comparison has to go to the Vols and the SEC-tested Young, but there is certainly a stable of exciting return prospects, any one of whom could emerge to make this a plus position for the Pack.