Tennessee OLB/ST Coach Mike Ekeler. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics
Veterans don’t typically show up and make their name playing special teams. The special teams units are, more often than not, led by talented freshmen and sophomores who are athletic enough to get on the field but not developed enough to have a big role on the offensive or defensive side of the ball.
It’s the first role most players have when they start their collegiate career. They get a taste of big time college football while showing their coaches the intensity and playmaking skills they have that will later translate to their side of the football.
But for Tennessee and its special teams unit, everything starts with the veteran leaders. That’s the culture Vols’ special team’s (and outside linebacker) coach Mike Ekeler has created in his three years at Tennessee.
“I’ll go back to three years here. Our best players sit in the front of the meetings on special teams,” Ekeler said. “They may not all play on special teams because they don’t come off the field on offense or defense, but those guys are knee deep in it. When these freshmen come in, who do they look up to? They look up to those guys, our team leaders.”
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That commitment from Tennessee’s veterans makes it all the easier for underclassmen to embrace the process and playing on special teams. It’s not a sexy role but it’s an important one and an area the Vols have largely excelled under Josh Heupel.
“Our team leaders are the ones – freaking Bru (McCoy) is in there busting his tail – all these guys are out there,” Ekeler said. “I don’t have to say a word, those guys set the tone. It’s the way it should be. You walk in that meeting room, it’s like a dang cult man. I say one word, and 85 guys in unison will finish it for me. That’s how we train them. They get in there, they feel it. It’s pretty cool. I enjoy it.”
In two years, Tennessee’s had one punt blocked and has allowed one kick return for a touchdown. On the opposite side, the Vols have returned one kick and one punt for a touchdown with Velus Jones Jr. and Dee Williams respectively having a myriad of long returns themselves. Tennessee also blocked a punt in its loss at Alabama in 2021.
The Vols’ special teams have been a quiet strength during the Josh Heupel era. Ekeler is looking to continue the trend and Tennessee’s leadership makes it possible.