Record-setting returners: Tigers put on dazzling display in victory over Volunteers

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 9, 2013 

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.Chris Davis acknowledged that he violated Rule No. 1 as a returner on Saturday: he let the ball hit the ground.

But Auburn's senior corner more than made up for his muff in the second quarter versus Tennessee, as he picked it up, made a few moves and cut to the sideline, racing 85 yards for a touchdown. It was the first punt returned for a touchdown by a Tiger since Robert Dunn did the same against Louisiana-Monroe in 2008.

While irritated he dropped the ball, Davis said he never gave up on the play.

"When it hit the ground, I saw that I still had a chance to pick it up and have a lot of room," he said. "I just went with that."

In Davis' opinion, it provided a "huge momentum shift" at that stage of Saturday's contest, which put Auburn ahead 20-13 with 9:51 to play before the half.

But Davis wasn't the only special teams ace for the Tigers in their dominant 55-23 victory. Corey Grant matched Davis with a touchdown of his own, taking the opening kickoff in the third quarter back for a 90-yard score.

"As a returner, I saw where they over-pursued it a little bit," Grant said. "There was a cut-back lane, and I just followed Ricardo Louis up through the hole, and from there, it was touchdown."

The efforts from Davis and Grant didn't just contribute to Auburn's sixth straight win; it also helped set an NCAA record for average return yardage. The Tigers' 44.85-yard average on seven kick/punt returns (totaling 312 yards) bettered Florida State's 41.8-yard mark established versus Virginia Tech in 1974.

In his postgame press conference Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn lauded Scott Fountain, who coordinates every special teams unit.

“Coach Fountain and his staff have done a great job," Malzahn said. "We have one of the better kickers in college football, we have one of the better punters in college football (and) now we're starting to get our return game right. Guys are starting to do their assignments, and if we can continue to improve in that area, it will really help us.”

In the losing locker room, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was visibly displeased his team had so many breakdowns on special teams, deeming it an "unacceptable" showing.

"A kickoff return to start the second half and everything is about momentum and gaining momentum, that’s unacceptable," he said. "A punt return for a touchdown, it’s unacceptable. It’s players getting off blocks and making a play in space."

Tre Mason is no stranger to making plays himself. The junior running back scored three more rushing touchdowns on Saturday, making it seven in the past two games. More importantly, he knows the feeling Grant experienced Saturday, as he scored on a kickoff return himself in the season opener versus Washington State.

Given his credentials, it's no surprise he said he had been involved in a game that had both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown prior to arriving in Auburn.

After all, he was responsible for both of them.

"High school is the last time I've seen that happen," he said. "I used to do punts and kickoffs."

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