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10 Questions for 2015 - Who Punts?

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Question #9: Is the biggest question mark in the Vols' starting lineup on special teams?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

A good sign of progress for the Vols as a program is this question even making our list this year.  For most of the last six years Tennessee has had so much uncertainty an opening at punter wouldn't even crack the conversation.  But this year, only middle linebacker (and perhaps then only when the Vols are in the 4-3) is a more important blank space in the starting lineup than punter.

It certainly hasn't been a question in Butch Jones' first two years.  Michael Palardy finished 11th nationally at 44.46 yards per punt in 2013, and Matt Darr followed up respectably with 42.23 yards per punt last season.  Darr's graduation led to an experience void at the position, however.  Tennessee signed three-star Tommy Townsend from Orlando in February and has redshirt sophomore Trevor Daniel in the mix as well.  But this off-season the Vols made it a three-way competition by bringing in graduate transfer Nate Renfro, originally from Brentwood who spent the last three years as Maryland's punter.

Renfro averaged 41.51 yards per punt last season, having improved his average by around one yard per season at Maryland.  That number was bested by nine other SEC punters last year, including Darr.  You'll need someone smarter than me to tell you which one of these three guys is the favorite; fall camp will be telling.

We've spent some time in these questions the last several years talking about how Tennessee wasn't good enough to give yards away on special teams, and really needed to take full advantage of those opportunities.  We hope it's the opposite this year, of course:  the Vols will go up and down the field and who punts will be the least of our concerns.

But last year showed what can happen when your up-tempo offense struggles with consistency:  the Vols led the SEC with 6.2 punts per game.  If you think it's only pace-driven, think again:  while Georgia Tech and Navy did lead the nation in fewest punts per game, Oregon was third.

During this seven year drought Tennessee has averaged 5.2 punts per game and only finished in the top half of the league in Lane Kiffin's year.  The good news for the Vols:  Josh Dobbs' presence has already shown up here as well.  In the first half of the year the Vols punted six times against Arkansas State, eight versus Utah State, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida, and nine times at Ole Miss.  Once Dobbs emerged?  The Vols punted just five times against Alabama, thrice at South Carolina, and four times in the blowout wins over Kentucky and Iowa.  Even when the offense sputtered against Vanderbilt (six punts) and Missouri (seven), the Vols were still competitive and, at Vandy, victorious.  Those 4.8 punts per game with Dobbs at the helm would've moved the Vols to seventh in the SEC and in the Top 50 nationally.

The hope is those numbers go down this season even further, or they go up in garbage time with a freshman playing quarterback in the fourth quarter with a cushy lead.  So hopefully Tennessee will be in the strange position of needing to find and break in a consistent punter with far fewer reps to do so.