One of the most satisfying stories for Tennessee Football last year was the final verse of the ballad of Michael Palardy. Lane Kiffin's pickup of the number one kicker in America sent waves of joy through Big Orange Country, especially in the aftermath of Daniel Lincoln's disastrous 2009 afternoon in Tuscaloosa. Lincoln recovered to knock through 10 of 11 attempts his senior season in 2010, during which Palardy banged home 5 of 7 in relief duty when Lincoln was injured.
"Injured" would become an all-too-familiar word for Palardy under Derek Dooley. In 2011 Palardy went 9 of 14 missing only one game, but in 2012 he was just 9 of 12 with Derrick Brodus called upon to handle seven attempts. Everyone kept falling back on Palardy's recruiting ranking, the idea being kickers should be easier to evaluate than any other position; how could Palardy not be a superstar right away?
Perhaps last year's change from Dooley to Butch Jones impacted no player more than Palardy. He won all three kicking jobs, nailing 14 of 17 field goal attempts including the game winner against South Carolina. He led the SEC and was 11th nationally with a 44.46 yard average on punts. And he just picked up a free agent deal with the Oakland Raiders.
In Palardy's absence all kicking jobs are open. Derrick Brodus, he of the frat house sofa, returns for his senior season, but many expect redshirt sophomore George Bullock and incoming freshman Aaron Medley to battle for the starting job. Matt Darr is also back for his senior season, though his inability to win any of the jobs from Palardy last year does little to inspire confidence right away.
Tennessee will need all the points and inches it can get; a young team looking to score upsets cannot miss field goals and cannot give field position away. This will be true for new faces in the kicking game, and will also be true for old faces in the return game.
Last year Tennessee finished a surprising 21st nationally in kick return average, sixth best among teams who did not take one back all the way. Devrin Young did the heavy lifting when healthy, 25.95 yards per return which would've been good for 24th nationally if he had enough attempts to qualify. That's not too far off the pace Cordarrelle Patterson set in 2012 at 27.96. The Vols were average in punt returns, 50th in the nation. Jacob Carter and Devrin Young both took turns here, but the Vols only returned 15 punts all year, tied for 99th nationally. That number will improve as the defense does, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see a newcomer like Von Pearson get in the mix here as well.
Now the bad news: UT's kick coverage was lousy. Tennessee finished 120th in kick returns, giving up 25.43 yards per return. The Vols got housed to open the second half against Auburn and gave up a costly return against Vanderbilt as well. In punt returns the Vols were 91st nationally, also housed by Auburn and roughed up by Oregon too. The talent and athleticism on the other sideline certainly didn't help in those cases, but still the Vols must improve.
One great sign here: the return of legitimate depth means some incoming freshmen can make this their primary focus in 2014. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a great example here from last year; several talented but under the radar freshmen could emerge as special teams playmakers in the return and coverage games.
It's a great thing to be able to trust your kicker, and someone new will have to earn that right. But it would be an even better thing for Team 118 to earn some hidden yardage in the kicking game, making life much easier on the other two phases as they mature. If Tennessee is going to score some upsets, it will likely need special teams to be a positive factor in those games as both Georgia and South Carolina showed us last year.