Prior to the spring practices, Will and I continue our look through the UT roster to see how the various positions may look. Armed only with our rank amateur football sense, we give some thoughts and projections on the team as it may look under Lane Kiffin. Previous positions covered are:
And now we dive into the football subject everybody loves to hate: Special Teams. Once a marginal afterthought in the game of football, the ever-present drive to find advantages on the field has turned the kicking game into the latest turf war. Returners like Devin Hester have turned a simple change of possession into a game-altering event. Coaches like Urban Meyer emphasize the importance of playing hard on special teams with tricks like preferential treatment toward special teams players. (Yes, that was intentional phrasing. It's also accurate and well-publicized.) The common mythos places weight of the different units at 3/7 offense, 3/7 defense and 1/7 special teams. While merely a third of the value of the other units in that system, that's still nearly 15% of the game. 15%! That's worth worrying about - especially when trailing by two with the ball in the final minute of a game. (Seriously, if you've been living in a hole and still don't believe that fans care about special teams, ask Joe Cribbs Car Wash.)
One of the knocks on the Fulmer era was that there wasn't sufficient emphasis on special teams; those who most strongly criticized the Papa pointed to the lack of a dedicated special teams coach as evidence of a second-rate focus. While the reality was more of a philosophical difference than a priority difference, the fact that we're even having a discussion on whether special teams are given enough respect is amazing in itself. A mere decade ago, only Virginia Tech was known for giving special teams more than the mere time of day.
(Aside: With the limitation on the number of coaches on a team, naming a "special teams" coach necessarily means removing some of a coach's time from other duties. That's why Fulmer chose rather to let the position coaches train up the equivalent positions in the kicking game. Kiffin has gone a different route by having Gran coach running backs and be the special teams coordinator.)
So let's take a look at the "final seventh" of football...
I've always liked place kickers. They are the red-headed stepchildren of the football team (and if you're literally a red-headed stepchild, let me know a better metaphor). I have yet to hear a retired pro player (who is not a punter or kicker) talk about place kickers and not start off by expressing their disgust of place kickers. Yet even with all that, the game doesn't even start unless the place kicker puts foot to ball.
Always Good For A Laugh (via macwriter2007)
A place kicker who can reliably force touchbacks on kickoffs is an unbelievably valuable player to have. If UT had one of those last year, we might not have had to deal with this:
Be happy I used a poor-quality example. (via benmonkeyz)
So yeah, not letting that happen is good. Currently, there are three place kickers listed on the UT roster (not all have schollys):
Lincoln will be a junior in 2009, and is one of many sources of frustration in the 2008 season. In 2007, he was absolutely clutch, and was responsible for several game-winning scores from his foot. However, his 2008 production didn't match up as well, and a few FULMERIZER-able oaths were muttered by the Vols faithful on his account. Yet Lincoln is still considered the best of the three place kickers on the roster, and there is no reason to believe that he won't be the place kicker.
The downside to Lincoln is his range. He has yet to make a 50+ yard field goal attempt, and he does not consistently boot a kickoff into the endzone. If he can improve the distance on his kicks during the offseason, he'll be the most reliable option for the Vols.
If Lincoln isn't at tip-top, his greatest challenge will come from Cunningham. Chad played in several games last year, including the Florida and South Carolina games to the exclusion of Lincoln. (Yes, Cunningham was guilty of that kickoff in the above video.) However, Cunningham has also been extensively used in the punting game - especially when Colquitt was serving his suspension at the beginning of last season.
Cunningham's punting will be addressed soon, but his place kicking is generally not as accurate as Lincoln, which is why I tend to think of Lincoln as the top guy. However, now that we have a dedicated special teams coach with a very solid track record (woo!), it's entirely possible that some dedicated attention will give Chad the extra accuracy he needs. It'll depend largely on how much he's asked to focus on punting; place kicking and punting use the leg muscles in a slightly different fashion, and focusing too much on kicking and punting can sometimes be detrimental to both.
I highly doubt you've heard of Devin Mathis before. He will be a sophomore next season, and has not played on the field in any games for UT yet. He will undoubtedly get a chance to move up the ladder, and let's face it; it's a lot easier to determine the pecking order of kickers than most other positions. If he can consistently kick off to the end zone, he may find a scholly yet (at the expense of one of the other two). But that's unlikely at this point.
Punters are generally much more highly regarded than place kickers. As far as I can tell, that's because punters are more likely to actually get hit during the course of a game and because they tend to be more involved in return coverage. (It also can't help place kickers when they're about 5'6" tall - hello Grammatica!) UT has been blessed with a regular rotation of punters for many years now: the Kicking Colquitts. And for the first time in a long time, we will not have a Colquitt to kick around anymore.
Cunningham is the only "P/K" listed on the team. During last season, he covered the punting duties when Colquitt was on suspension. Unfortunately, Cunningham's punting tended to be slow, which resulted in a few blocked punts. (And no, this was not the reason for the blocked punt in the UCLA debacle - the blockers royally screwed up their assignments.) Slow punting also risks offsides calls, as the blocking line is usually trained to start running downfield after a preset timer in their brains goes off. So if Cunningham is going to be expected to punt, you can bet that Eddie Gran will work on his mechanics to find a few extra tenths of a second.
Hensley is another name you've likely never heard of. A junior from the University of the Cumberlands, Hensley does not have any UT stats to his name (and, in fact, is not even listed on some of the major sites). He will be a senior this coming fall, so unless he magically becomes an absolute stud at punting, I do not expect to see Steven on the turf throughout the season.
Looking at the roster, it would seem that Cunningham is the de facto choice for punting this year due to a lack of contender. However...
The punter from Rhea County, after mulling over the options available to him, decided to walk onto UT's team. (h/t to rblakeh for first mentioning this.) Like any other high school punter, information is sparse. Browsing the usuals, you can find out that he's a shade under six feet tall, that he runs a 4.9ish 40, and that he averaged about 45 yards per punt last year. He decided to sign up with UT after talking to Eddie Gran (special teams coach! reelin' 'em in! yay!), and UT was his first school of choice anyhow. I like the distance and I like the speed (which will help him contribute to the defense of the returner). I wish there was some information about his kicking speed. If he sends the ball aloft faster than Cunningham, he will very likely take over the punting duties as the first non-Colquitt punter UT has had in a long, long time.
I think we'll probably see Daniel Lincoln as the place kicker over Cunningham and Mathis. He had the best year of the three, albeit in 2007; I'm banking that he'll come back up to speed. For punting, I'll guess that Cunningham will be the punter in the first game. With a dedicated coach to special teams, he should get more attention paid to the speed at which he gets rid of the ball. Fix that, and he should be fine. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see Davis work his way into the roster by the end of the year (or more likely by next year); he obviously has a strong leg, and once he acclimates to the team, he should be hard to keep off the field.