Quotes: New-Look Specialists Eager To Kick Off 2023 Campaign

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football wrapped up its third week of preseason training camp Saturday morning on Haslam Field as the anticipation for kickoff continues to build on Rocky Top. The 2023 season opener is officially two weeks out, with the 12th-ranked Vols set to take on the Virginia Cavaliers at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Sept. 2.
 
UT faithful will see several new faces in the kicking game this fall after the departures of fifth-year seniors Paxton Brooks and Chase McGrath. Graduate transfer Charles Campbell has emerged as the starting placekicker after a successful four-year stint at Indiana, while redshirt freshman Jackson Ross will assume punting duties for the Big Orange in 2023.

Campbell hails from Jackson, Tennessee, and enrolled at UT in January of 2023 after participating in Orange Bowl practices last December. The two-time All-Big Ten selection is one of three siblings currently attending Tennessee and takes a lot of pride in wearing the Orange and White for his final season of college football.
 
“I have a ton of pride in being here,” Campbell said during Saturday’s media availability. “I grew up wanting to go here, my sister just enrolled here a few days ago, I have a little brother who is going to be a sophomore here and my mom went to college here. I get to represent my family. I had a ton of friends in high school go here. I couldn’t be more honored to represent my home state and finish out my career here. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”
 
Ross arrived on Rocky Top last fall from Melbourne, Australia, where he grew up playing Australian Rules Football and was eventually drafted by Hawthorn Football Club of the AFL in 2017. After deciding to pursue American football and training with Prokick Australia, Ross earned an opportunity to punt for Tennessee and spent the last year acclimating to the game and building up confidence.
 
“I’m really confident now going into this season,” Ross said. “I think being here last season and just sort of taking a back seat was huge for me to learn about the game, understanding (how to) punt. It’s been great transitioning into this season being the No. 1 punter, focusing this game on myself, being able to adapt to all that, feel rushes at practice and stuff like that. I think it’s put me into a great stead heading into the year.”
 
Special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler also met with media on Saturday and discussed Dee Williams’ ability in the return game. The senior from Forsyth, Georgia, is a preseason All-America and All-SEC selection as a return specialist after averaging a league-best 18.7 yards per punt return last fall.
 
“(Dee Williams) is confident,” Ekeler said. “He understands his role. He is going to have the opportunity to be the best return guy in the country. He has earned that, and he has the instincts, he has the ability … The guy is a real one.”
 
The Vols will take Sunday off before returning to the practice field Monday morning. Head coach Josh Heupel is scheduled to meet with the media after practice at approximately 11 a.m. ET.

Tennessee Football Press Conference | Aug. 19, 2023

Special Teams Coordinator/Outside Linebackers Coach Mike Ekeler

On evaluating the special teams and kickoff units… 
“We have some great competition right now. Special teams as a whole, this is year three. Our guys understand the techniques, they understand the teaching progression. So, where we are at is where we should be in year three, but it is an endless pursuit of perfection, and we are not there yet. We will never be there, but I love our group. We have great speed, we got guys that will put their damn face on you, (and) we got guys that understand the importance of it. The culture that (Coach Heupel) and everyone has created in this building, it has been phenomenal on teams, and we are only going to continue to be better. The standard, I have said it before, I’ll say it again, the standard is to be the damn best. We are never stopping. It’s always looking for things to tweak. The kickoff job, we got three guys that are neck and neck right now. You have Charles (Campbell), you have Max (Gilbert), and you have Josh Turbyville. Those guys all have really strong legs. We have great competition now, and it is not settled at this point.”

On the process of relaying the importance of special teams… 
“It is pretty simple, it makes you a complete football player. If you have any aspiration of going on to the NFL, you might like to become a surgeon on special teams. Our guys understand that, and they see today, for example, we showed clips of (Princeton) Fant on kickoff return for the Cowboys. Yesterday, we were showing P-Fant on kickoff. We show those guys every single week. We showed them (Cedric) Tillman on punt return. Did those guys play that while they were here? No. But did they train, did they learn the skills, and they are transferable not only to their position, but to transition and get them prepared to play on Sunday? And let me tell you, we got guys fighting for damn spots on our teams.” 

On the comfort level of Jackson Ross… 
“Rossy is a special dude, and I think he is extremely comfortable. He works his tail off. The guy is a pro. The guy is a phenomenal athlete. This summer, he goes and runs (the 40-yard dash), we time him, (and) he is in the 4.5’s. I kid you not, I think he could be a starting wide receiver for us, he is that athletic. He might look like an accountant or something, but the guy is uber-athletic. He claims he has the third-strongest arm on this team behind Joe (Milton III) and Nico (Iamaleava). For me, the guy who signs my paychecks, I am going to say the fourth behind Heup, also. So, he is pretty special. He has a great disposition, but he has a pro mentality, and he was. You have to remember, he was a pro (in) Australian rules football for three years, so he has that type of mentality. I absolutely love the guy.” 

On what he sees in Dee Williams… 
“He is confident. He understands his role. He is going to have the opportunity to be the best return guy in the country. He has earned that, and he has the instincts, he has the ability, and it’s like an offense. When you have a great running back, your offensive line blocks a little bit harder. They know all they have to do is just give you a crease, and that’s what those guys understand on our return units. All they have to do is just get it started and he will do the rest. The guy is a real one. But we have a bunch of them too now. Squirrel White, he is real. Cam Seldon, he is real. [Dylan] Sampson, he is real. We have a bunch of those guys, which we should.” 

On how close they are to deciding kickoff returners and the influx of athletic freshmen coming in…
“Kickoff return first, we got about four or five guys who are working on returner and off returner in that role. We feel good about that. We got Dee (Williams), we got Cam (Seldon), we got Dylan Sampson, we got Will Wright back there working, we got some guys that we feel confident with. From the freshmen standpoint, one of the really cool things if you look back since the time we got here, we’ve taken freshmen and we’ve put them out there. We played them on special teams from the jump and developed them and got them game reps right there, got them acclimated. So, when they go in on offense, they go in on defense, they are like, ‘hey, no big deal’. They are already ready to rock and roll. That’s kind of how we look at it as a staff from a special teams standpoint, we develop those guys there. To answer your question, we got a bunch of them. We got a bunch of true freshmen, a bunch of those DBs, receivers, Ethan Davis tight end. You got John Slaughter, you got (Rickey) Gibson, you got (Jordan) Matthews, you got (Cristian) Conyer, we got some guys who are doing some great things. Caleb Herring is out there rocking and rolling on a couple of units. It’s really cool. Love our freshmen, love their mentality. They love the game and they’re only going to get better.”

On if they can prepare with the special teams unit for the new playing turf at Nissan Stadium…
“You know what, I’ll be honest with you I didn’t even know there was a new surface. I don’t worry about that. I know we’re going to roll the ball out there, it’s going to be 100 yards. I don’t care if it’s turf, I don’t care if it’s grass, I don’t care if it’s dirt. We’ll be fine.”

On if it’s an easy sell to get freshmen to play on special teams at the start…
“I’ll go back to three years here. Our best players sit in the front of the meetings on special teams. They may not all play on special teams because they don’t come off the field on offense or defense, but those guys are knee deep in it. When these freshmen come in, who do they look up to? They look up to those guys, our team leaders. Our team leaders are the ones – freaking Bru (McCoy) is in there busting his tail – all these guys are out there. I don’t have to say a word, those guys set the tone. It’s the way it should be. You walk in that meeting room, it’s like a dang cult man. I say one word, and 85 guys in unison will finish it for me. That’s how we train them. They get in there, they feel it. It’s pretty cool. I enjoy it.”

Redshirt Senior PK Charles Campbell

On kicking in Neyland Stadium…
“I love kicking in Neyland. It’s a great place to kick, and it is super fun. You go in there and you get to look around at the big stadium, so it’s super fun and I like it. The uprights are the same distance at Neyland as they are on the practice field, so it’s about the same. I really enjoy it, and it’s been nice to get in there a few times and understand where the wind flows and how to play the ball in there. It’s been fun.”

On how he determines what his range is on a given gameday…
“When you go out on the field, you have to read the wind. That’s one of the main things that you have to do to determine your range. If the wind is in your face, you’re obviously not going to hit the ball as far. If the wind is at your back, you’ll hit it further. Going both directions on a field, there might be different yard lines that you have to get to in order to feel confident in a kick. You also have to take into consideration the temperature outside. If it’s warm, the ball is going to fly a little better than if it’s cold. You get a good feel for it when you go out on the field, especially when you’ve been kicking for a while. You go out there and it’s an instinct. You can go in pregame and test yourself out and see what your range is.”

On what it means to be playing for Tennessee…
“I have a ton of pride in being here. I grew up wanting to go here. My sister just enrolled here a few days ago, I have a little brother who is going to be a sophomore here and my mom went to college here. I get to represent my family. I had a ton of friends in high school go here. I couldn’t be more honored to represent my home state and finish out my career here. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”

Redshirt Freshman P Jackson Ross

On having played in front of large crowds during his Australian Rules Football career…
“Yeah, Australia gets some big crowds. Our Grand Final, which is like your Super Bowl, gets about 100,000. But I’ve played in some smaller, sort of 20,000 stuff, so I mean that probably sounds a bit short, but this will be crazy playing in Neyland for the first time, actually being out there on the field and doing my thing will be awesome. I can’t wait and I’m going to soak up the atmosphere when I get out there.”

On his comfort level heading into this season after now having been here for a full year…
“I’m really confident now going into this season. I think being here last season and just sort of taking a back seat was huge for me to learn about the game, understand sort of punt, and it’s been great transitioning into this season being the No. 1 punter and focusing this game on myself and being able to adapt to all that and feel rushes at practice and stuff like that. I think it’s put me into a great stead heading into the year.”

On learning how to hold for field goals…
“I’ve been holding a lot through spring and fall camp. Back in Australia, obviously I’d never played American football, so I’d never held a ball until I went to Prokick (Australia). They incorporate punting, field goal kickers and holding because when you get here you need to be ready to hold because usually it’s a punter’s job. Some teams have quarterbacks (hold) obviously, but I think I’ve improved that hugely. Holding for Charles (Campbell) and just doing reps is all you can do really with that. He knows how I’m going to hold the ball and I know how he wants me to hold the ball, so I think we’ve got a great bond now with the snappers and all that. The more reps I’ve had, the better I’ve become.”

Senior DB/RS Dee Williams

On how he feels like he’s grown since last year…
“I would say my confidence. Starting off as a defensive back, I’ve gained a lot of confidence since last year. I know after the LSU game when I first got back, I was kind of shaky getting out there after the hamstring injury. I’ve been working this past offseason and all summer trying to get better as a defensive back and a punt returner.”

On what goes into being a good punt returner…
“Locking in on your keys every day and focusing on the small things first. That’s all that matters. It can get scary back there sometimes, but it’s all about having confidence in yourself and depending on your teammates to protect you when you get to the ball.”

On if he needed to learn how to not always be the hero on punt return when he first started…
“I started punt return when I was in JUCO at my past school. I was always taught to not be the hero and try and make a play every time. Once I got here, it clicked and realized that you want to be able to put the offense in better position, so you don’t always have to be the hero. With the chances you do have, you should take advantage of them.”

-UT Athletics

Vols PK Charles Campbell / Credit: UT Athletics

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