Tennessee fans had no idea what to expect last fall from freshman kicker Aaron Medley, who had made just three of six field-goal tries as a senior at Marshall County High School. After going 20 for 26 as a college rookie he senses a different level of pressure.
“I think the biggest change from last year to this year is when we go out for a field goal I’m expected to make it now,” Medley told InsideTennessee. “Last year it was like, ‘OK, let’s see what he can do.’ I think the standard is up there now, and I have to maintain it.”
Medley raised the bar even higher in the spring-ending Orange & White game, nailing a 55-yard field goal.
Tennessee’s fans may have been surprised by his field-goal kicking last fall but Tennessee’s coaches were not.
“We were expecting him to make ‘em last year; that’s why he was on the field,” special teams coordinator Mark Elder said with a laugh. “When we put a guy on the field we’re expecting him to be successful.”
Still, knowing 100,000 fans expect every kick to split the uprights represents a lot of pressure for a kid just one year removed from Marshall County High School.
“There’s no question: From the outside vantage point, there’s going to be higher expectations for him after a solid freshman year,” Elder said. “But that’s what he wants: Competitive guys don’t want people nervous about what their performance is going to be. Competitive guys want to go out there when the game is on the line in clutch situations and do what they’re here to do.”
Elder believes Medley is quite capable of maintaining the momentum he achieved last season, when he nailed eight of his final nine field-goal tries.
“You see a guy that a year ago was competing for the starting position, believing ‘I think I can do it’ and so forth,” Elder said. “Now you’re seeing a guy that is out here with confidence. He knows he can do it. He’s competing to be the best in the country. That's his mindset: He wants to be the best.”
Medley may not become the best kicker in college football but he’s working to become the best kicker he can be. Elder is thrilled with the progress his protégé made this spring.
“He has a lot of confidence in himself, and rightfully so,” the Vol aide said. “He has taken a lot of strides from last year. You see that he has a stronger leg than last year. What he has been able to do in the weight room has helped him quite a bit. You are seeing that he is more accurate. You are identifying that with longer field goals. He's had a higher percentage of balls that he has hit (in practice), and that's where the accuracy comes into play.”
Medley appeared to have a mental block last fall: He made 19 of 20 field-goal tries under 40 yards but just 1 of 6 from 40 and beyond. Improving his long-distance accuracy was the primary focus all spring, so nailing that 55-yarder in the O&W game was big.
“I’m just getting more comfortable with the longer kicks,” he said, “and making sure my technique is sound.”
When asked the key on long kicks, Medley offered a golf analogy.
“It’s just seeing your line … like a putt in golf,” he said. “If you see your line and follow through down that line you’re going to make your kick.”
Medley’s outstanding work this spring has turned a lot of heads, including that of Butch Jones.
“Aaron has added much-needed strength with the offseason conditioning program,” Tennessee’s head coach said. “The ball is jumping off his foot right now.”
In addition to handling Tennessee’s placements in 2014, Medley eventually won the kickoff job. He averaged a respectable 60.1 yards per kick, meaning his average kickoff was fielded at the 5-yard line. Nearly one-fourth of his kickoffs (15 of 63) resulted in touchbacks but the coaching staff hopes to see him double that number in 2015.
|Tennessee special teams coordinator Mark Elder|
“We need him to get the ball in the end zone,” Jones said. “The best kickoff-cover team is when they get a touchback. We’ve really challenged him on that, and he’s really responded. His internal drive is one of the best we have on this team.”
Medley averaged 64 yards on two kickoffs in the spring game, putting one through the end zone for a touchback and booting the other to the 2-yard line. That was another positive sign.
As important as distance is on kickoffs, accuracy is even more so. Tennessee’s coverage team overloads to one side of the field and trusts the kicker to place the ball between the yard-line numbers and the boundary on that side. Thus, a well-placed kick to the 10-yard line is easier to cover than a poorly placed kick to the goal line.
“Last year they wanted it in a box,” Medley noted, “and it’s the same this year.”
Although he has no real serious competition for the kicker job, he is working like a second-teamer battling to overtake the first-teamer.
“The thing with Aaron is, he’s motivated internally, first and foremost,” Jones said. “He didn’t have a particularly good scrimmage our first Saturday (of spring practice), and on Sunday he drives to Nashville to work (with mentor and former Vol James Wilhoit) on his kicking. Aaron is intrinsically motivated.”
Medley is so motivated, in fact, that he believes his personal-best field goal of 46 yards as a freshman will fall early in his sophomore season.
“I feel comfortable up to 55, easy,” he said.
As if to underscore the point, he capped his spring by nailing that 55-yarder in the O&W game.