The Special Teams: Not So Special So Far
We’re done with the daily defense previews. Now before we move on to the offense – and yes, we’ll get to the Da’Rick-less receivers – let’s peek into the backroom closet where we keep our kickers and returners.
New special teams coach Charlie Coiner comes to Knoxville to lead what is now becoming an old story: a woefully underperforming kicking game compared with the standards set over the last 80 years of Tennessee Vols football. Coiner’s coaching experience related to special teams comes from both the NFL (Bears and Bills) and the college ranks (including LSU and Vanderbilt).
Junior Michael Palardy (#1) came to Tennessee as the number one high school place kicker in the nation as rated by Scout.com. We all watched those YouTube videos of a skinny kid from Coral Springs, Florida, kick a ball off of a PK practice tee 60 years through the uprights kick after kick after kick. In high school, the left footer was 76-for-78 on extra points as a junior with 98 percent of his kickoffs going as touchbacks. He was a punter as well. When a senior, he averaged 47.0 yards per punt.
So when Daniel Lincoln’s leg injury prevented him from continuing as the Vol PK his senior season (2010), Palardy came in as a freshman in mid-season and ended up tying for third in the UT annals for season field goal percentage (.714) with a minimum five made (5-for-7). He also spelled an injured Chad Cunningham late that season for punting duties. A decent start. Expectations grew for his sophomore season, and instead of being recognized as a pretty decent field goal kicker (9-of-14 including a 52-yarder against Alabama) and extra-point converter (25-of-26), he became known as a very short kickoff specialist (only 6 touchbacks out of 43 kickoffs) while being slightly hampered with a slight leg injury for much of the season.
With two more seasons to go, Palardy came to camp with a noticeable improvement in his leg strength. His performances in the summer scrimmages give us reasonable hope that his best years as the Vols place kicker – field goals and kickoffs – will be his last years donning the orange jersey. One thing appears certain: the NCAA’s moving kickoffs up five yards from the 30 to the 35 will certainly help out with last year’s unacceptable touchback ratio.
Sophomore Matt Darr (#43) was better known in high school (Bakersfield, California) to some as a a track and field athlete (state champion in both the shot put and discus). But he was also rated as the nation’s number one punting prospect while also serving as a linebacker and a place kicker. As a freshman for the Vols last season, he was serviceable punting the ball (40 punts, 38.1 average with 10 inside the 20-yard line), but became best known for having a punt blocked in the Buffalo game – he recovered the ball and ran 30 yards for a first down.
Word out of summer camp is that Darr continues to suffer from inconsistent ball placement on his punts, resulting in anything ranging from a boomer to a shank, but has improved in recent days. Look to Palardy for the backup punting duties in 2012, but he could also surpass Darr for the top spot to become a dual PK-P starter.
Freshman George Bullock (#97) comes to the Vols from local Knox West H.S. Bullock was the Scout.com number 9 overall kicker, and was also named 2010 kickoff champion status at the Kick-off Classic. Look for the freshman to possibly make an appearance on kickoffs with the 2012 Vols. [UPDATE: Bullock broke his leg after a collision at practice and will miss the entire 2012 season. This puts Derrick Brodus as the No. 2 place kicker behind Palardy.]
Junior Derrick “Frat House” Brodus (#26) was not part of the Vols summer camp at Milligan College earlier this month. No matter if he doesn’t play another game in an orange jersey, the walk-on kicker will always have a place in Tennessee football history because of November 5, 2011. Sitting at home on his couch less than an hour before the MTSU game, Brodus received a phone call summoning him to Neyland Stadium to sub for Palardy and Darr, who were both too banged up to play. He kicked a 21-yard field goal and three PATs in the game, leading to feature stories on ESPN and in Sports Illustrated. Let’s hope his cell phone account remains active throughout the 2012 season.
The Returners and Kick Coverage
Tennessee finished an ok 41st in the nation on punt returns last season (considering simply catching a punt a couple seasons ago was deemed a positive). Sophomore Devrin Young (#19) was the returner of choice last season (over 22 yards per punt return) and looks to fill the same role this year as well as kickoffs. Several other options are available in case Young’s performances demands an alternative, such as junior wide receiver Justin Hunter (#11), junior JUCO Cordarrelle Patterson (#84), junior defensive back Eric Gordon (#24), or any number of freshmen with high school return experience.
Kickoff coverage was one of the very few bright spots of 2011. Even though the allowed yardage of 18 yards per return, good enough for 7th in the nation, might have been helped by the short kicks, it was miles better than Tennessee’s punt return coverage (85th nationally).
In addition to holding down the punter job, Matt Darr will also likely be the holder on PKs, with backup sophomore QB Justin Worley (#14) as an alternate holder.
The deep snapper looks to be junior J.R. Carr (#53) along with sophomore Matt Giampapa (#59) as the backup.
The Final Word
Special teams’ performance of the last few years demands a Missouri-style approach to any optimism for 2012: I’ll believe it when I see it.