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Tennessee Football Eyeing ‘Best Year Yet’ At Vacant Position

Tennessee Football
Tennessee WR Squirrel White showing off his endzone celebration during the 2022 Capital One Orange Bowl. Photo by Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

Former Tennessee return man Dee Williams was an electric player for the Vols last season and had home-run potential each time he fielded a kick. But with Williams out of the program now, Tennessee’s return position is left vacant heading into the 2024 season.

Williams returned 20 of 21 punts last season for Tennessee and had 12 kick returns compared to just three from the rest of the team. It’s safe to say that there’s an opportunity available here in the spring for someone to step up and take the reigns of the spot.

So who’s the most likely candidate?

The only player to take a punt return last season who wasn’t named Dee Williams was Squirrel White. With his speed and agility on the football field, White seems to be a strong candidate for the punt return position.

“You have Squirrel (White), he’s done it in games around here and been really electric,” Tennessee specialists coach Mike Ekeler said about punt return on Thursday. “We probably have about five other guys that are truly legit. So, that competition is really ongoing and will go through the summer and into fall camp. I’ll tell you what, whoever is back there is going to be absolutely dynamite. We’re going to continue on the trajectory we’ve started for three years here, and this will be our best year. Guaranteed.”

A lofty but strong goal with the summer quickly approaching.

Kick return tells a similar story as Tennessee rotates through guys to figure out the best combination of players to put back in the endzone during games this fall.

“Kickoff return, same thing,” Ekeler said. “We have a lot of new guys. A lot of guys with different skill sets which really we’ve evaluated in the spring. Feel really good about where we are headed in the kickoff return unit.”

Ekeler ended his thought on the kick return unit with a strong projection as the Vols wrap up their training camp this fall.

“Again, it should be our best year yet, and not even close,” Ekeler said.

More from RTI: Which Tennessee Football Players Could Be Inactive For The Orange-And-White Game

One more name who has been garnering praise this spring and could make an impact on Tennessee’s return unit is none other than in-state freshman defensive back Boo Carter.

As a recruit on the high school scene, Carter was a dynamic two-way player who could make people miss with the ball on offense and fly around the field to stop progression on defense. With his ability to return the ball at the high school level also on display, Carter looks to be a potential candidate for a position on one of Tennessee’s return units this fall.

Still, though, there’s a trust level that has to be built up – not to discredit Carter and his work on the field but simply just to acknowledge the tough spot for a freshman player.

After a full spring camp around Carter, though, Ekeler feels confident in the early enrollee’s ability.

“I’ve been other places and, in this conference too, where we had a true freshman back there, and he was an All-American,” Ekeler said. “So, I don’t bat an eye. If they are ready, they’re ready. Boo Carter, I’m not saying he’s the guy, but he’s in that competition.”

Ekeler has found himself impressed by Carter’s work ethic and passion as a football player after a short time in Knoxville.

“Boo Carter, he doesn’t care if he’s in front of 102 thousand (fans), he doesn’t care if he’s in front of five people, he’s Boo,” Ekeler said. “He’s so locked in and focused on what he does. He’s just a great football player. Regardless of if he’s our returner this year, he’s going to play a ton of ball around here. I absolutely love that guy. He’s just a great football player.”

The kick return and punt return spots might not be the most eye-opening positions, especially during the offseason, but it’s an ever-important position for Josh Heupel’s offense in trying to move the ball as far ahead as possible.

All you have to do is go back to Tennessee’s narrow victory over Texas A&M this season when a Dee Williams punt return touchdown in the third quarter helped give Tennessee the winning difference in the 20-13 game.

It will be fascinating to see who Tennessee rolls out at the kick-return and punt-return positions during the Vols’ 2024 Orange & White spring game on Saturday in Knoxville. Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for complete coverage of the event.

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