New coaches get a measure of grace, and so last year I tried not to get too upset when the Vols struggled in a couple of obvious and frustrating ways. In September, it was easier to blame Jonathan Crompton for being Jonathan Crompton than to throw any responsibility at Lane Kiffin for our passing game. When Dexter McCluster ran circles around our entire defense, we chalked it up to injuries and mental fatigue after the Prius arrests earlier that week. And when Virginia Tech lived in our backfield for most of the night in Atlanta, I shrugged my shoulders and wondered why more defenses hadn't taken advantage of our undersized offensive line.
But the one thing I found completely inexcusable last year was our special teams play. To recap:
- 4 blocked FG attempts, including 3 consecutive attempts vs. Alabama/South Carolina
- 2 kickoffs returned for touchdowns allowed
- 1 blocked punt allowed, resulting in a safety
- Missed a field goal and an extra point against Auburn in a game we lost by four points
- Three kickers combined to go only 13 of 21 on FGs, 1 of 8 on 40+ yard attempts
- 82nd nationally in kick return yards allowed
- 81st nationally in punt return yards allowed
- 80th nationally in kickoff touchbacks with only four; average kickoff landed just inside the 10
- Only SEC team to block neither a field goal nor punt
And what's worse, we've heard it all. Both Lane Kiffin and Phillip Fulmer - because special teams aren't a new problem around here - have used every coachspeak line about how to solve what have been obvious problems in the third phase for years...and yet, no results. Eddie Gran did a lot of good with Montario Hardesty, but even he couldn't make our special teams play something more than a liability. Even our greatest special teams achievement was rendered meaingless by an even greater special teams failure in less than two minutes against Alabama, a game we win with any improvement in the kicking game.
So, will things be different in 2010? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Michael Palardy, Matt Darr, and Eric Russell. Our most frustrating weakness has a chance to become our greatest strength.
Field Goal Kicking
After the Alabama debacle last year, we looked at Daniel Lincoln's career kick-by-kick to that point; he was 9 of 14 then and finished the year 10 of 16, benched for the final three games. That puts his career numbers at 41 of 63, 65%...which means he's still only ahead of the kickers from Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Lincoln's issue last year was the same as in 2007: great start, costly finish. In '07 he was Freshman All-American thanks to his 21 of 25 regular season. Then he went 0-2 in the SEC Championship Game, including a crucial 30 yard shank, and missed his only attempt in the Outback Bowl. Last year, he was 8 of 10 going into the Alabama game, and then made only a third of his kicks down the stretch. While special teams may not be the most direct cause of the '07 SECCG loss, it most certainly was in Tuscaloosa last year.
Lincoln has made some huge kicks here: this crazy one against South Carolina and another in overtime in 2007, the eventual game-winner against Vanderbilt that same year, and one to send it to overtime at UCLA in 2008. The problem is, he's also missed some huge kicks here, including his other three attempts in that UCLA game, two 50+ yarders and the shorter one in OT that cost us the game. There's also the aforementioned kicks in the 2007 SECCG, and of course, all three misses against Alabama last year.
Kickers may be head cases by trade, but when ours says he's headed for the Navy SEALs after college, he's suddenly less easy to criticize. You'd hope a career choice like that implies some mental toughness, and with an entire offseason to heal the quad that caused him to come up well short on a 47 yard attempt at Alabama, perhaps Lincoln has something positive left to give Tennessee in his senior year.
If not...well, we've already anointed lefty Michael Palardy as the chosen one anyway.
As the #2 kicker in the nation according to Rivals and the best in the nation according to Scout, Palardy's hype and Lincoln's struggles have combined to make him the fans' choice to kick this year. Of course, Derek Dooley doesn't care about that, but I do think it's fair to say there will be some sort of competition for the job this fall, and even if Lincoln wins it, if he shows the same inconsistency that's plagued him in the past, Palardy will be ready and waiting. Palardy's highlights aren't that exciting, in part because his high school team was so good they just didn't kick many field goals. But if you'd like to see him kicking the ball (from the 40) through the end zone repeatedly, then click here.
Tennessee has a strong history of recruiting kickers only once every four years: starting with John Becksvoort in 1991, the Vols have used the same kicker for all four years of his career with five consecutive players: Becksvoort (91-94), Jeff Hall (95-98), Alex Walls (99-02), James Wilhoit (03-06), and now Daniel Lincoln (07-09). So Palardy will be the first real challenger to that lineage and tradition that we've seen since the 80s.
May the best man win in fall camp...and whoever it is, may he not give us cause to bring up the other guy.
POSSIBLE BRIGHT SPOT A: Chad Cunningham may not be a Colquitt, but he's quietly put together a season and a half of decent work. Last year he was 4th among SEC punters (and a respectable 39th nationally) with a 42.05 yard average, just barely behind Brent Upson at Vandy (43.06), and in even better company when you consider Georgia's Drew Butler is some form of punting deity, leading the nation in punting by more than two yards per kick last year at 48.05. In the first five games of 2008, Cunningham subbed for Britton Colquitt and was good for a 39.52 average, which is down some because of his remarkable display of accuracy at Auburn.
It was the only beautiful thing on the ugliest day of football I've ever seen, which accounts for Cunningham's 10 punts in the game. But in the second half, both of Cunningham's kickoffs went for touchbacks, and he had punts that were downed at the Auburn 4, 3, 12, and 5. The Vols, of course, failed to take advantage...but our punted proved he could get the job done.
And then there's Matt Darr, who appeared on our radar 48 hours ago. Darr was the number one punter in the Class of 2010 according to Scout, and ranked first on Rivals' strongest leg list for all kickers. After committing to USC, Darr signed with Fresno State when Pete Carroll left for Seattle. But with Fresno's special teams coach now headed to the Trojans himself, Darr has secured a release to head east and play for the Vols. That's right, Lane Kiffin: we got your punter.
Darr averaged more than 46 yards per punt in high school, and his late addition could be an indication that this coaching staff doesn't have faith in Cunningham...or it could just be that when the number one punter is out there, you sign him. Either way, moves like this show that this staff is more serious about special teams than the two previous administrations. Hooper gave this guy an initial scout yesterday.
Cunningham and Lincoln are both seniors, which means both of these jobs will be Palardy's and Darr's sooner than later. For now, Cunningham will likely face the same competition as Lincoln when camp opens, though it's unclear if Dooley will be concerned about fatigue if anyone manages to win both jobs. As Cunningham is the highest rated Vol in NCAA Football 11, you'd think he'd have no problem keeping his job. But either way, it's kinda nice to have the #1 kicker and the #1 punter in the fold. Your special teams dominance is on alert, Georgia.
POSSIBLE BRIGHT SPOT B: As bad as the Vols were in most special teams categories last year, Tennessee actually finished 20th in the nation in kick return average in 2009, at 24.02 yards per return. The best and most experienced option from 2009 returns in the form of David Oku, who averaged 26.15 yards per return, 25th nationally. The Vols didn't take any back to the house, but our starting field position was usually pretty good.
Nu'Keese Richardson saw most of the action opposite Oku as a kick returner. He's gone, as is Dennis Rogan, who at one time looked like the best kick returner we'd had in years: in 2007, Rogan averaged 30.0 yards per return, which would've been fourth nationally had he returned enough kicks to qualify.
If Dooley wants to stick with Oku - and with those numbers, he should - then who else will be back there with him? Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones both have limited experience at it, and you also have to include Janzen Jackson after the Vols experimented with him as a punt returner in the spring game (more on this in a second).
Then there are the freshmen wide receivers. Just as Kiffin used kickoff returns to get Oku and Nu'Keese action right away, so too may Dooley choose to use Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers, or Ted Meline as return men (I'm ruling Matt Milton out, because how many 6'6" return men do you see?). Hunter holds the Virginia state record in the long jump...that's gotta be worth something on kick returns, right?
You could make this point with every special teams category, but it's especially true here: if the Vol offense is going to struggle, there's no better way to help them out than to shorten the field. If Oku can become a consistent threat as a return man, or one of the young guys can step up, Tennessee can make life easier on themselves by not asking Matt Simms or Tyler Bray to go 80 yards.
Who would you like to see next to David Oku?
All the punt return duties were handled by Nu'Keese Richardson and Dennis Rogan last year, which means it'll be a new option this fall. Gerald Jones saw work there in 2008, but Janzen Jackson got the nod in the spring game.
I like Jackson back there for a couple of reasons, the biggest of which is just that it seems like he's got the right attitude for it. We don't need any of the skittish, "Am I going to field this one or not?" stuff that Nu'Keese often gave us. And we don't need any more of the Eric Parker School of Punt Returning, featuring classes that run east and west but not north and south. As our favorite hard-hitting safety, Jackson seems like a guy that won't shy away from contact, to say the least, but also has the athleticism to make people miss.
The downside to putting quite possibly your best defensive player at punt returner is, of course, what if he gets hurt? The potential reward, like the kick return game, is helping out an offense in field position in a year where we're going to need every break we can get. I like the gamble.
Same options are in play here as well, with Oku or one of the receivers being the most likely choice should Dooley decide to go in a different direction.
It may be subtle, but here's where new special teams coach Eric Russell can really shine.
At Texas Tech last year, Russell helped the Red Raiders hold the opposition to only 19.56 yards per return, 17th in the nation. It's even more impressive when you remember that he did it at Texas Tech, where they scored points in bunches and thus kicked off more than your usual team.
Russell's mark also showed up in other places: at Louisiana Tech with Dooley, Russell's units blocked five kicks in two years, and led the WAC in punting. But kick coverage has been a particular problem for the Vols, who haven't finished in the Top 30 in it since 2006. Again: we need all the help we can get, and if whoever's kicking off can't put it in the end zone more than four times, we need to tackle better. This is where you hope the heavy emphasis on special teams in practice pays off immediately.
82nd in kick coverage, 81st in punt coverage, and a lot of the same things apply. Let's also remember that we were called for the ultra-rare snap infraction penalty against Vanderbilt on a punt, which kept a drive alive and could've made a huge difference in the ballgame.
In a post full of odd stats, this one might be the winner: the Vols were third in the nation in punt coverage in 2004, giving up only 3.67 yards per return (read: Dustin Colquitt). Since then, we haven't broken the Top 80 in that category. That's five straight years of futility, poor decision making, and watching guys like DeSean Jackson and Brandon James take it to the house.
On paper, this is the easiest improvement to make (other than not having three straight field goals blocked). Again, and again, and again: every yard counts, and we need all of them to count for us. If Russell can make an impact in coverage on both ends, we'll be in much better shape than we've been in six years.
Is it really possible that our worst unit in 2009 could become our best unit in 2010? It's never a good year when you hang your hat on special teams, but we'll absolutely take what we can get. So here are what I feel are some good goals for this unit in the fall:
- The victor in the field goal kicking battle holds the job all year by making at least 80% of their kicks (half the kickers in the SEC did this last year).
- The victor in the punting battle averages at least 43 yards per punt (Cunningham was at 42 last year, top three punters in the SEC were above 43).
- David Oku makes a name for himself on special teams, and returns at least one kick for a touchdown
- The Vols block at least one field goal and at least one punt, and do so without picking up multiple roughing the kicker penalties along the way
- We have 12+ kickoffs that go for touchbacks (one per game, which I don't think is asking too much if you've watched the film on Palardy and Darr).
- We make the Top 50 in kick coverage and punt coverage.
- No one runs a kick or punt back for a touchdown against us all year (hasn't happened since 2004).
In General Neyland's game maxims, right before we carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for sixty minutes, we press the kicking game, for here is where the breaks are made. Those breaks have a chance to go our way now more than ever...and our team has never needed it more.