It’s no secret that Tennessee outside linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler has quickly become a fan favorite.
With his daily GIFs and tweets about hot chili, he’s captured the attention of Vol Twitter.
But Ekeler does more than tweet. He’s vocal in every drill with his linebackers, and it seems that his special teams unit is progressing nicely, too — but not without some humor.
“I've been joking around with coach (Kodi) Burns, who's coaching our returners,” Ekeler said Thursday. “The other day we had 119 catches of punts. It was rapid fire out there. I told him that's pretty disappointing we didn't get 120. Come on man.'”
Ekeler also switched to a more serious note, as he delved into the specifics of his special teams evaluation process.
“We're evaluating a lot of guys,” Ekeler said. “From a special teams standpoint, spring practice, especially when you're new, all you're doing is taking every single player on your roster and evaluating their skill set every single day. We've got a big spreadsheet, and we literally talk about the six different phases and say, 'alright Tommy can do this, he's probably not going to be on this one.' Marking their skill set, plugging them and putting together the pieces of the puzzle."
That puzzle is an important one to figure out.
The Vols’ punting game fared well last season, as Paxton Brooks averaged 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 61. Brooks was named to the Ray Guy Award watch list last season, and he helped get Tennessee out of a couple fourth-down jams with his arm strength.
Now, it appears Brooks is picking up where he left off last year.
“The other day, (Brooks) was just banging them out there,” Ekeler said. “I think on six punts, he was averaging about 55 yards, and he's putting them right exactly where we want them. I'm pleased with it every day.”
But placekicking, especially on field goals, is where it gets tricky. While neither Joe Doyle nor Brent Cimaglia were great last season, either one would be valuable for a unit that is searching for a new fourth-down reliability when Tennessee is in field-goal range.
So far, Ekeler said, the competition has been going well.
"From our placekickers, we have a really good battle going right now,” he said Thursday. “We've really looked at everyone and I think Chase (McGrath) today was 5-of-6. Toby (Wilson) is doing a nice job.”
Wilson, a Brentwood native, made his first appearance against Vanderbilt last year.
Ekeler added that the group as a whole is “coming to work and working on their craft.”
“I think we have a talented group,” he said.
Football is made up of three key components: offense, defense and special teams.
With the hype surrounding the Vols’ offense and the questions about Tennessee’s defense, it may be comforting to know the Vols’ new in-house chili vendor has special teams under control.