When looking at Tennessee’s kick return situation heading into the 2023 season, it somewhat shakes out as two different sides of the same coin.
On one hand, the Vols bring back former East Central Community College defensive back Dee Williams, who accounted for 15 of the Vols’ 20 total punt returns last season. Williams averaged 18.73 yards per return last season en route to 281 total yards.
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound defensive back is an electric runner that only ended with one touchdown last season but came close to breaking off the long run behind the defense on several occasions. Having Williams back is certainly a positive for Tennessee when it comes to an experienced punt returner.
“I mean, Dee [Williams] is special, man,” Tennessee special teams coach Mike Ekeler said on Thursday. “The guy is what you want. I stood up here two years ago and you asked me what we wanted [out of a return man] and I said a fart in a skillet, right? That guy is a fart in a skillet. That’s what you want. And so every time that ball is punted and with No. 3, you give him a chance to get that thing started, everybody in Neyland should be holding their breath.”
Dee Williams’ celebration is A1 😂 pic.twitter.com/FEn6QImIOo
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 27, 2022
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On the other hand, though, Tennessee’s main kick returner from last season is no longer with the team. After taking 14 of Tennessee’s 17 kick returns last season, wide receiver Jimmy Holiday transferred to Western Kentucky after three seasons in Knoxville.
Ekeler didn’t exactly say who would be taking over the kick return duties as Holiday’s replacement but did mention a “lot of guys” that he believes could perform in that spot.
Mike Ekeler specifically pointed to two Tennessee sophomores and one Tennessee freshman as players that have either improved in the return game or have a special characteristic in that department already.
“But we’ve got a bunch of other guys, you know?” Ekeler said. “Squirrel White, I mean you could plug him in and he’s very, very similar. [Dylan] Sampson has come a long way. Cam Seldon is special back there. And so we’ve got, we’re going to start a tradition around here and I know we’ve had some great ones in the past and that’s what we’re going to do.”
When the conversation around Tennessee’s return men involves the names Dee Williams, Squirrel White, Dylan Sampson, and Cam Seldon, it’s clear to see just how much Ekeler and the Vols value raw speed in that department. Those four guys likely make up for four of the fastest players on Tennessee’s entire team.
All in all, despite having the third-least amount of kick returns in the SEC last year, Tennessee finished in the top half of teams in terms of average return yards. Jimmy Holiday’s 14 returns, Dylan Sampson’s one return, Dee Williams’ one return, and Doneiko Slaughter’s one return all totaled an average of 19.88 yards per return, which was good for sixth in the SEC.
Punt return, though, was much more of a strength for the Tennessee specialists. The Vols had the seventh-most punt returns in the conference last year (20) and finished with the second-highest average yards per return at 16.55. The Vols barely fell behind No. 1 Alabama at 16.89 yards per return.
Fortunately for Tennessee, as mentioned previously, Dee Williams is back for the Vols this season.
“That’s what you want,” Ekeler continued on to say. “That’s what you aspire for. That’s what the guys in that room – they’re competing their tails off, blocking their tails off for him.”