KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee’s Evan Berry and Cameron Sutton are aiming to give their departing special teams coach an ideal sendoff by accomplishing something that hasn’t been done in over two decades.
Berry is the top Football Bowl Subdivision kickoff returner and Sutton is the nation’s leading punt returner heading into the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against No. 12 Northwestern (10-2) in Tampa, Florida.
The last time teammates finished the season atop those two categories was 1993, when Texas A&M had the nation’s No. 1 punt returner in Aaron Glenn and the top kickoff returner in Leeland McElroy, according to STATS LLC,
If Berry and Sutton match that feat, they’d deliver quite the going-away present for special teams coach Mark Elder, who is leaving Tennessee to begin his head coaching career at Football Championship Subdivision program Eastern Kentucky. Elder took the Eastern Kentucky job Dec. 10 but agreed to remain at Tennessee (8-4) through the bowl game.
“Coach Elder has definitely been a great special teams coach,” Berry said. “Just knowing that he’s going to another school to get a head coaching job, it speaks for our program and what we’ve done to help him get that job.”
Berry, a younger brother of Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl defensive back and former Tennessee star Eric Berry, is averaging 38.3 yards per kickoff return, 1.8 yards off the FBS single-season record of 40.1 set by BYU’s Paul Allen in 1961.
Sutton, also a starting cornerback for Tennessee, averages 18.7 yards per punt return. Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk owns a higher average (24.4) but has returned only 14 punts, just below the minimum standard of 1.2 per game required to be included among the NCAA leaders.
Sutton has passed much of the credit for his big returns to his blockers.
“At this level, it takes all 11 guys to make something happen,’ Sutton said. “We were blessed enough this year to get quite a few returns, not just from me.”
Berry has scored on three kickoff returns, Sutton has scored on two punt returns and Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara also has a touchdown on a punt return. Kamara had two more touchdowns on punt returns nullified by penalties. STATS says the last FBS team with that many touchdowns on combined kickoff and punt returns is the 2013 North Carolina squad, which scored on five punt returns and two kickoff returns.
Tennessee’s special-teams success isn’t limited to its return units. Trevor Daniel has averaged 45.6 yards per punt to rank ninth nationally, while Aaron Medley has recovered from a slow start to make 11 of his last 12 field-goal attempts.
That big performance from Tennessee’s special teams helped Elder get his latest opportunity. Elder, who also coaches the Volunteers’ tight ends, quipped Saturday that he’s been spending his days handling his Tennessee duties while “moonlighting” as Eastern Kentucky’s head coach at night.
“You have to be very detailed, but I told him to enjoy this,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “This opportunity doesn’t come around very often. Sometimes you have to sit back and actually enjoy it. You are trying to juggle so many things.”
Elder says spending nine years working for Jones has helped prepare him for this opportunity.
“His attention to detail is outstanding, and the passion for the game and how that bleeds into the players,” Elder said. “Those are two general things I’ve really learned a lot about with him.”
Although Elder’s two jobs have divided his responsibilities this month, Tennessee’s return men say they haven’t noticed a difference in him during bowl preparation. They’re eager to send Elder out with a win.
“He’s still coaching, still in guys’ ears (with the) same intensity he’s had (from) the beginning of the season,” Sutton said. “We’re dearly going to miss him, but we hope the best for him and wish the best luck for him.”
AP college website: collegefootball.ap.org
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