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Mike Ekeler details Tennessee’s kick and punt return options

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Velus Jones Jr. leaves a big void in the Tennessee offense, but his presence will also be missed on special teams. That’s a bit of a forgotten part of the equation here as the season nears, and special teams coach Mike Ekeler has been trying to solve it in the last few weeks.

Tennessee has been working several guys throughout camp, getting a handful of players ready and comfortable to handle those return situations.

On Wednesday, Ekeler ran through the potential options.

“We’ve got a ton of guys on punt return,” Ekeler said. “We’ve got Tre Flowers. We’ve had Dee Williams. Kickoff return, Jimmy Holiday. We’ve got (Dylan) Sampson back there. We’ve got Doneiko (Slaughter). We’ve got a bunch of guys. A lot of guys that are capable. Really excited about it. Velus (Jones Jr.) is a hard guy to replace, but we’re going to do it by committee.”

Jones Jr. averaged north of 27 yards per kick return last season, and also averaged over 15 yards per punt return. With those talents now in Chicago with the Bears, Ekeler is hoping to find another guy capable of providing a “fart in a skillet.”

Trevon Flowers handled three punt returns and a kick return last season. Dee Williams handled a ton of return responsibility at the JUCO level, scoring two touchdowns each on punt and kickoff returns. Both Dylan Sampson and Jimmy Holiday have the speed and explosiveness to make something happen on kick returns.

So does this staff value safety and security? Or playmaking ability? Both, according to Coach Ekeler.

“We’re kind of greedy,” Ekeler said of his returners. “We want both. We want a guy who can strike up Rocky Top. That’s the objective. We’ve got a pitch to hit and we want to hear our fight song. We feel like we work so much with these guys in the offseason and during the season with ball security and catching the ball. We feel like we can get the best of both worlds. And we’re going to.”

Velus provided Tennessee with and handful of big plays on special teams last season — it’s going to be interesting to see who emerges in these spots once the season begins.

Tennessee opens the 2022 campaign on September 1st against Ball State.