Tennessee’s special teams were nothing short of spectacular on Saturday. That’s nothing new. A quick glance at the NCAA statistics shows the Vols are among the best in the country.
Sophomore Evan Berry leads the nation with 42.6 yards per kickoff return. That’s about eight yards per return more than San Diego State’s Rashad Penny, who comes in second with 34.3 yards per return.
Junior Cameron Sutton is third nationally with 20.2 yards per punt return.
Sutton returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown on Saturday against Kentucky. Berry returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score. The two special-teams touchdowns essentially eliminated any chance for a Kentucky comeback. The Vols won 52-21.
“We invest so much time in that and every time we go out on the field to return a kick, whether it’s punt return or kickoff return, everyone on our sideline expects a big play,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Tennessee leads the nation in kickoff returns by averaging 40.4 yards per return. That’s six yards better than the second-best team, Michigan, which is averaging 34.4 yards. Tennessee ranks sixth nationally with 19.1 yards per punt return.
The performance against the Wildcats was record-tying on two fronts.
Berry’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was his third return for a score this season. It is only the fifth 100-yard touchdown kickoff return in Tennessee history. The last was Leonard Scott in 1999. Berry returned the ball deep in his own end zone and never hesitated.
“He had that look in his eye,” Jones said after the game. “He was going to bring it out regardless. We have a lot of confidence in him and our entire kickoff return unit.”
Said Berry, “They just give me the green light to do whatever. We practice it enough and I know my decisions and how to judge the ball.”
Berry tied Willie Gault for the team record for most kickoff returns for a touchdown in a single season. Gault accomplished the feat in 1980. He played at UT with Berry’s father, running back James Berry.
“It means everything to me, a record held by Willie Gault, who actually played with my dad,” Evan Berry said. “Knowing that he holds a record that hasn’t been broken in 30 years is definitely a great feeling.”
Saturday’s game also marked the second time this season that Tennessee has scored on a kickoff and punt return in the same game. Before this season, the last time Tennessee accomplished that feat was in 1950.