'Special' emphasis

InsideTennessee gives you more insights than anyone else. Check out this analysis of Vol special teams and the critical role they could play this fall:

Special teams might be the difference between a 4-8 record and an 8-4 record for Tennessee’s football team this fall. That’s an extreme example perhaps but Mark Elder takes the idea that “Kicking is one-third of the game” more literally than most.

“It’s a third of the game; we’re going to win or lose four ball games because of how we perform on special teams,” said Elder, the Vols’ special teams coordinator. “I think we did a little bit of both last year. We won some ball games (with good special teams) and when we didn’t play well that contributed to us losing some games last year.”

He’s right. Michael Palardy placed six punts inside South Carolina’s 20-yard line and booted the game-winning field goal on the final play of a 23-21 upset of the 11th-ranked Gamecocks. One week earlier a touchdown off a blocked punt nearly enabled Tennessee to shock No. 9 Georgia in a 34-31 overtime loss. Conversely, allowing an 85-yard punt return and a 90-yard kickoff return opened the floodgates in a 55-23 loss to Auburn. Then Palardy missed a 33-yard field goal and threw an interception off a fake field goal in a 14-10 loss to Vanderbilt.

With Palardy out of eligibility, special teams is a giant question mark for 2014. Senior Matt Darr has inherited the punting duties, freshman Aaron Medley the placement chores. Both are looking good in preseason drills so far.

“Darr’s doing a better job than he has all during my time here,” Elder said recently. “He’s hitting the ball better than I’ve ever seen him, and he’s been more consistent, so I’m very encouraged with the direction he’s going…. We still want to get him a little quicker, as far as get-off time is concerned, but he’s hitting the ball much more consistent, which is great.”

Typical of a freshman, Medley has experienced some ups and downs. He may have turned a corner last Tuesday, however, closing the workout by nailing five field goals in a row. That sort of positive reinforcement works wonders for a guy’s self-esteem.

“Having confidence as a kicker is absolutely critical,” Elder said. “Look at Michael Palardy. That was a big part of Mike’s success last year. I don’t know anything about what happened previous to us being here but last year Mike Palardy was a guy who had talent and confidence. He performed at a high level, and that was a big part of it.”

Perhaps that 5-for-5 practice finish will give Medley the confidence to perform at a high level this fall.

“It’s very important for him,” Elder said. “Kicking is like golf; how you’re going to perform is very much mental. He certainly has all the ability in the world. It’s a matter of him being mentally locked in, having confidence that he’s going to go out there and do it.”

Medley has shown the leg strength to hit field goals of 50-plus yards in practice. If he’s as strong mentally as physically, he could be a great kicker for the Vols.

“He’s got tremendous pop to his leg,” Elder said. “He’s got the ability to do it.”

The question: Can he do it with 102,000 fans and a national TV audience watching? Kicking for Tennessee is much more nerve-wracking than kicking for Marshall County High back in Lewisburg.

“He’s probably only been confronted with (a crowd of) 2,000 people in his life,” Elder noted. “Well, there’s going to be another 100,000 there in Neyland Stadium watching him kick, so there’s going to be a little bit more pressure than he’s ever experienced.”

To try and create pressure in practice, Vol head coach Butch Jones has Medley kick while the sound of crying babies and jet take-offs blares over the public-address system. Medley finds the ploy more amusing than distracting.

“With Butch I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “He comes up with some of the weirdest stuff, God love him. But he’s a good guy.”

Medley’s ability to block out crying babies and jet engines has earned the respect of his position coach.

“We’re expecting big things,” Elder said. “He’s going to have a great career.”

Maybe Medley can approach Palardy’s 2013 placement numbers (14-17 on field goals, 34-35 on PATs). Perhaps Darr can equal Palardy’s punting prowess (44.5-yard average in 2013). Still, Tennessee must make dramatic improvement on coverage units that allowed 25.4 yards per kickoff return and 9.9 yards per punt return last fall. Both units should be better this fall due to the infusion of speed from the 2014 freshman class.

“That (speed) shows up in all aspects of special teams,” Elder said. “On coverage units it will be huge, in particular. On the kickoff and punt coverage you’ll see guys getting down there quicker. That means guys are in the punt returner’s face, which means more fair catches, which is big. That also means guys are taking a shot on the returner, so he has to move laterally. That’s big.”

Speed is just as critical in covering kickoffs.

“Getting people downfield on kickoff coverage, beating them to the 20-yard line, is huge,” Elder said. “It’s extremely difficult to block a guy that’s fast. Having that speed on the coverage units is going to be outstanding. It’s going to be big for us.”

Because the learning curve isn’t as steep, freshmen generally manage to contribute on special teams quicker than on offense or defense.

“There are less assignments,” Elder conceded. “You have one or two things you have to do for special teams, which does make it a little easier. It is a little easier to get involved in special teams because there are fewer variables. You have one or two assignments, and that’s about it.”

Basically, those two assignments are as follows:

1. Find ball-carrier

2. Tackle ball-carrier

Aaron Medley video interview

Inside Tennessee Top Stories