Last season, Tennessee didn’t get a chance to return many punts, but when they did, UT’s return team often got the job done. Marquez Callaway was a dangerous returner, and he finished the year with an 11.9 yard per return average and scored a punt return touchdown against Charlotte, giving him his second return score of his career.
But this season, Tennessee hasn’t had much of a chance at all to make an impact in the punt return game.
Through four games, Tennessee has just three true punt returns. The Vols blocked a punt and returned it for a score against UT-Chattanooga, but Tennessee only has three conventional punt returns on the season. That total is in the bottom-100 of the FBS.
This year, Callaway has only been able to rip off one big return so far. The senior receiver returned a punt 35 yards in Tennessee’s season opener against Georgia State, but he’s resorted more to fair catches since. Against BYU, Callaway had one return for negative four yards thanks to a fumble. Against Florida, the senior had one return that totaled zero yards.
Over the last three seasons, Tennessee has seemed to be more risk averse than explosive in the punt return game. As a team last year, Tennessee totaled just 14 conventional punt returns (all by Callaway). In 2017, the Vols again only had 14 punt returns as a team. But back in 2016 — with Cam Sutton, Alvin Kamara, and Callaway returning punts — the Vols totaled 33 punt returns as a team.
Tennessee needs a spark in their return game, and sophomore cornerback Bryce Thompson could provide just that.
On Wednesday, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt met with the media after practice. One of the things he brought up in his opening statement was the return of Thompson and the impact he’s starting to have on the practice field now that he’s been reinstated for a few weeks.
According to Pruitt, Thompson likely would’ve been the team’s starting punt returner at the beginning of the season had he been available to play.
“Having Bryce (Thompson) back changes things up a little bit in the return game, so it’s good to see him out there getting an opportunity to do some of that again,” Pruitt said on Wednesday. “He was a guy that probably would’ve been our starting punt returner at the beginning of the season. So (we’ve been) trying to get him back in there, ready to go.”
Thompson was suspended back on August 26th after being charged with domestic assault stemming from an incident that weekend. The sophomore cornerback was away from the team for two and a half weeks before Pruitt announced he would be allowed back at practice on September 11th. Thompson didn’t appear in Tennessee’s game against UT-Chattanooga that weekend, but he made his 2019 debut against Florida the following week.
Those domestic assault charges have since been dropped against Thompson, and he’s a full-go now with the Vols.
As a true freshman in 2018, Thompson didn’t return any punts for the Vols, but he served as a kick returner on occasion. The former four-star prospect returned four kick-offs for 100 yards with a long of 35 yards.
Those kick-off returns coupled with his return ability on interceptions (Thompson totaled 45 return yards on three interceptions) makes him an intriguing option for the Vols on special teams.
Tennessee hasn’t had someone with an aggressive mentality as a punt returner since 2016. The Vols have relied far more heavily on fair catches since Kamara and Sutton moved on after the 2016 season. But the Vols clearly need to start finding ways to set their offense up with shorter fields, and getting chunks of yards on punt and kick-off returns is a good way to do that.
The Vols aren’t likely to have many opportunities on Saturday to field punts, though. Georgia’s offense has done a phenomenal job of putting points on the board, and the Bulldogs have punted just 11 times in four games this season. Only two of those 11 punts have been returned, and opponents have managed a grand total of 17 yards on those two returns against the Bulldogs.
Thompson is dangerous with the ball in his hands, and Pruitt wants to try and make that happen however he can. Expect to see the sophomore used as a returner sooner rather than later for the Vols.