10 Questions for 2012 #9 - Special Teams

I mean, I know what happened in the second half of this game. But I still think this picture is awesome.

If you do a search for Michael Palardy on this fine website, you'll find multiple instances from multiple authors that have his name and the word "important" in close proximity from the early portions of 2010. It's a point we've made a dozen or more times since then: shouldn't kicker be the easiest position to evaluate in high school? So if you're the number one kicker in the nation, as Palardy was in the Class of 2010, shouldn't you be a surer bet to live up to your potential than any other player at any other position?

After four bipolar years with Daniel Lincoln (Freshman All-American, bad like everyone else in 2008, the infamous afternoon in Tuscaloosa that overshadowed everything else in 2009, then 10 of 11 when healthy in 2010), we were ready for the sure thing at kicker we assumed Palardy would be. I think sometimes we feel like we haven't had a good kicker since Jeff Hall - you take the 2007 and 2010 versions of Daniel Lincoln with a smile, I'd like to point out - but with Palardy, it's been incredibly frustrating. He's been hurt. He's nailed a 52 yarder at Alabama. He's made just two-thirds of his kicks (14 of 21) - you think that doesn't sound so bad, but consider last year he was next-to-last among those in the SEC with enough kicks to qualify at 64.3% (9 of 14). Half the kickers in this league made over 72% of their kicks last season. Eight kickers did the same in 2010. Ten did in 2009.

Derek Dooley will have you believe that Palardy's biggest problem has been his health, and now that's fine. But then his numbers from spring practice were same old same old, flashing potential with long kicks but then missing chip shots. And because of the nature of Tennessee's teams during Palardy's time here, he hasn't had to make the big kick yet.

We hope the Vols are scoring touchdowns and the only kicking Palardy does is PATs. But Tennessee still isn't good enough to give away points; Palardy has to improve from missing one out of three kicks. We know the leg is there when he's healthy. Now the accuracy has to follow as he enters his third season.

As for the rest of the third phase?

What has Tennessee done best under Derek Dooley? Kick coverage.

No joke: the Vols were 10th nationally in 2010, 8th nationally in 2011. Memories of Joe Adams may still be dancing in your heads, but that's the exception and not the rule (contrary to what our record suggests, we don't punt much - just 14 were returned last year (which means Adams' return really skews the average), because we went for it on fourth down a jaw-dropping 28 times, 10th nationally. Dooley will roll the dice.) Tennessee has done an excellent job keeping teams pinned back off kick and punt coverage, and the bar is set high for Charlie Coiner to come in and clear in 2012.

That needs to stay the same. And if the Vols want to score touchdowns and/or be aggressive on fourth down again this year, fine by me, so hopefully we won't even have to worry about Matt Darr too much.

The other area that needs clear improvement is in our return game.

Tennessee wasn't terrible last year - 41st in kick return average, 61st in punt return average - but that's the point: we haven't been spectacular at it in a long time. There's hope in Devrin Young - he didn't return enough punts to qualify, but his 11.75 average would've been good for 17th nationally. But his kick return numbers did qualify, again, unspectacularly - 65th nationally at 23.26 per return. With new kickoff/touchback rules, it'll be interesting to see how aggressive Young - or whoever else is back there (Pig Howard? Rajion Neal?) - is encouraged to be.

We hope our offense is lights out...but shorter fields can't hurt. I couldn't find the stat anywhere officially, but I truly can't remember the last time the Vols ran a punt or a kickoff back for a touchdown; I know we ran an onside kick back against South Carolina in 2004, but that doesn't count. That puts my memory at Mark Jones against Alabama in 2002, and (I think) a Donte Stallworth punt return against Memphis the year before. I hope my memory is going bad and it hasn't actually been that long.

Whatever the case, the Vols need special teams to be a positive and not a negative this year, which is never too much to ask. Stay sharp on kick coverage. Find a playmaker in the return game, which hopefully Young will continue to mature into. And get Michael Palardy's confidence and health on par with his original potential, so if/when the game is on the line, our kicker can bring us home.

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