Back from two weeks in Haiti and eager for the homestretch of the offseason, we kick off our 10 Questions series with Tennessee's sophomore kicker. Michael Palardy is still most famous for his number one ranking among kickers in the Class of 2010. I think most of us assumed the same thing about him: that he would come in and instantly take the job from Daniel Lincoln, who was coming off a 10-of-16 season that was highlighted by the debacle in Tuscaloosa.
Lincoln kept his job and performed admirably, but an injury sidelined him for five games in the middle of the season. He only missed one field goal all year, but because we didn't see him as often his legacy may always be one of inconsistency (especially since our last image of him was the missed extra point in the Music City Bowl that opened the door for North Carolina's win).
Palardy's first field goal opportunity came at LSU, where the Vols had 1st and 10 at the LSU 19 in the third quarter, tied 7-7. As was a common theme last year, the Vols went backwards with a sack that turned sure points into a 45 yard field goal, and Palardy missed. After hitting a 33 yarder, he also missed a 52 yarder in the third quarter against Alabama, a kick that would've helped at the time but ultimately wouldn't have mattered in the final outcome.
From there Palardy was perfect: a 39 yarder at South Carolina, and three made field goals at Memphis, but none longer than 33. Lincoln returned and kicked the rest of the way, meaning the Vols have a guy on their hands for 2011 who was 5-of-7 last season, but has never made a kick of 40+ yards.
I'm certainly not a recruiting expert, but my opinion has always been that kickers should be the easiest prospects to evaluate. How far can he kick? How accurate is he? In terms of measurable skill, that's it. But it's also true that kickers are head cases, a trait they share with just about every 18-22 year old walking the earth. So while it was always easy for us to believe that the nation's best high school kicker should have instantly been able to come to campus, win the job, and then become the nation's best collegiate kicker...we have to also leave room for the mental growing pains associated with this job.
And so we find ourselves still very unsure of who Michael Palardy is and what exactly he can do, only now there's really no other option to default to at the position. That's not to say that Palardy can't or won't be great...it's just that we have a small sample size and a bunch of short made kicks.
Where Tennessee did excel last year was in kick coverage. The Vols were 10th nationally, allowing only 18.98 yards per return. Palardy and Chad Cunningham split those duties in 2010; Cunningham's average kickoff landed at the 7 yard line, Palardy's the 9. Between the two of them, Cunningham recorded the only touchback of the entire season. This makes Tennessee's kick coverage even more impressive and has led us to question in the past if the Vols were kicking it higher and shorter on purpose, giving the coverage team more time to get downfield. But comments in the spring about aiming for deeper kicks suggest that may not be the case. If Palardy again handles the kickoff duties full time, how much better can he be?
With so much of Tennessee's hope riding on the offense this season, the kicker's role may be somewhat diminished. This time last year and the year before that, we were envisioning low-scoring offenses that would need every point they could get. Now we're picturing Tyler Bray throwing five touchdowns per week and field goals that feel like disappointments.
Either way, it would be nice for the Vols to get back to the days of John Becksvoort and Jeff Hall, guys you knew were going to split the uprights when they stepped on the field. When Palardy was signed, we all assumed he could be that guy. His first year told us basically nothing. How quickly can he develop confidence...and how often is he going to need it?