Blake Morgan/ SEC Country
Tennessee wide receiver Marquez Callaway seems to be the leader in the clubhouse for the punt returner position.

Tennessee football: Early favorite emerges in most contested position battle of fall camp

Who is in the lead for punt returner?

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The quarterback competition might be Tennessee’s most talked about position battle, but punt returner might be the most contested.

The Vols need a new punt returner in 2017 since running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Cam Sutton exhausted their eligibility in last fall.

Wide receiver Josh Smith returned six punts in 2016, but fellow wide receiver Marquez Callaway sounds like the leader in the clubhouse.

“That is one of the positions on our football that is under a great competitive battle right now,” coach Butch Jones said Tuesday after practice. “It’s reliability and it’s consistency. Marquez has done a great job. He’s done a great job. He’s very consistent, so we’re repping a lot of individuals.”

Callaway returned two punts last season against Tennessee Tech for 114 yards and returned one for a touchdown.

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Being held accountable

Callaway said he has put in some extra effort to improve his skills as a punt returner. Punter Trevor Daniel has held the group accountable.

“I’ve gotten better at doing it,” Callaway said. “I’ve stayed after with Trevor. A lot of us come after, actually. They come on Sundays when no one body’s here, and he always texts us and tell us to be here.

“We all take a lot of pride in it.”

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The completion right now is a healthy one according to the sophomore. Everyone pushes each other to help improve the team.

“At punt returner right now, all we’re worried about are the little things,” Callaway said. “The details, so when we get out there, we won’t be out there scared or uncomfortable. Right now we are all just going through it.

“We all meet and get together, we all take turns and push each other, so we can get better.”

Jones said the competition will remain going, as Tennessee wants as many looks at a potential new returner as possible.

Freshman Theo Jackson might be one of Callaway’s biggest threats for the job. The 6-foot-1, 178-pound cornerback has impressed the coaching staff early.

“We’re repping as many as eight or nine guys and over time, because you can never have enough,” Jones said. “But Marquez Callaway’s done a very good job, Josh Smith has done it in games and I really like where Theo Jackson is. Justin Martin continues to work his skill set there, Jauan Jennings — there’s a number of individuals that we’re repping there.”