What Options Tennessee Has at Kick Return Following Velus Jones Jr’s Departure

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    Tennessee Football Practice Highlights

    Tennessee defensive back Dee Williams. Photo by Rocky Top Insider.

    Velus Jones Jr was one of the most dynamic players with the ball in his hands in all of college football last year. On his way to becoming the 2021 co-SEC Special Teams Player of the Year, Jones Jr routinely gave Tennessee a great starting position with his ability to dip and dive downhill on a return.

    As Tennessee fans know, though, Velus Jones Jr is not in the building anymore after being drafted by the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

    “Velus is a hard guy to replace, but we’re going to do it by committee,” Tennessee special teams coach Mike Ekeler said on Wednesday.

    With Jones Jr taking both kick return and punt return duties last season, Tennessee has big shoes to fill in that slot. Luckily for Tennessee, speed is one thing that’s not hard to find on the roster.

    According to Ekeler, the Vols have had several players back fielding kicks in training camp.

    “We’ve had a ton of guys on punt return,” Ekeler said. “We’ve had Trevon Flowers, we’ve had Dee Williams. Kickoff return – Jimmy Holiday, we’ve got [Dylan] Sampson back there, we’ve got Niko (Doneiko Slaughter). We’ve got a bunch of guys and a lot of guys that are capable. Really excited about it.”

    Flowers, Slaughter, and Williams represent the defensive backs room while Holiday and Sampson come from the offensive side of the ball. As Ekeler said, though, the Vols will be using a committee for those duties.

    Ekeler also says that there are several freshmen that could wind up making an impact on special teams this year.

    “You got Elijah Herring, you got Kalib perry, you got Dylan Sampson who is tearing it up, doing a great job,” Ekeler said on Wednesday. “Squirrel White is doing a nice job. Jourdan Thomas and Chas Nimrod. I’m leaving out a bunch, trust me. Then you got Dee Williams, not a freshman but just got here. He’s electric. There’s a ton of guys. We got a chance to be special.”

    While Jones Jr did take about 70 percent of Tennessee’s total returns last year, his teammates split the other 30 percent.

    2021 Kickoff Returns

    • WR Velus Jones Jr* – 23 returns, 628 yards, 1 touchdown
    • WR Jimmy Holiday – 5 returns, 126 yards
    • TE Miles Campbell – 2 returns, 25 yards
    • RB Len’Neth Whitehead (will miss 2022 season due to injury) – 1 return, 19 yards
    • DB Trevon Flowers – 1 return, 15 yards

    2021 Punt Returns

    • WR Velus Jones Jr* – 18 returns, 272 yards, 15.11 yards average
    • DB Theo Jackson* – 2 returns, 14 yards
    • DB De’Shawn Rucker – 1 return, 12 yards
    • DB Christian Charles – 1 return, 10 yards
    • WR Walker Merrill – 1 return, 0 yards
    • DB Trevon Flowers – 3 returns, -2 yards

    * denotes 2022 NFL draftee