Like a spiraling kick with great hang time, Tennessee’s punting job is very much up in the air. Three players are battling for the right to launch the Vols’ first punt of the 2015 season … five if you include a couple of wide receivers.
Head coach Butch Jones raised eyebrows at Media Day by noting that he has never utilized one player exclusively as a “pooch punter,” then adding: “We do have a wide receiver or two that will also punt for us and do some different things that way."
When asked which receivers he was referring to, Jones grinned and replied: "Stay tuned; you'll have to find out.”
It turns out the two wideouts who have launched a few punts in practice are big Jason Croom (6-fee-5, 243 pounds) and little Alton Howard (5-feet-8, 187 pounds). Based on eyewitness reports, neither is a threat to handle the assignment on a regular basis.
The serious candidates for Tennessee’s punting job are redshirt sophomore walk-on Trevor Daniel (Dickson, Tennessee), scholarship freshman Tommy Townsend (Orlando, Florida) and University of Maryland graduate transfer Nate Renfro (Brentwood, Tennessee).
Having started for three years with the Terps and averaged 41.5 yards in 2014, Renfro has experience on his side. Townsend has a big leg and glowing high school credentials on his side. Daniel has two years in Tennessee’s program on his side and has looked the best of the three in the portions of fall camp open to media.
“It’s yet to be determined who that individual is that’s going to go out for the very first punt of the year,” special teams coordinator Mark Elder told InsideTennessee, “but it’s been a great competition and we’re excited about the group.”
Asked if he has a timetable for identifying a No. 1 punter, Elder nodded emphatically and deadpanned, “Yeah, we want to have a starter named before the first game.”
Townsend, rated No. 1 among 2015 kicking prospects by some analysts, clearly exhibits the talent to be special.
|Tennessee redshirt senior Nathan Renfro|
“He’s a guy that has a big leg, great accuracy, the ability to hang the ball up in the air so our coverage unit can get down the field,” Elder said. “It’s just a matter of being as consistent as he possibly can.”
Wildly erratic in 2014 practices – booming some memorable punts but also unloading some ugly shanks – Daniel seems to be overcoming that tendency this fall.
“His consistency has improved throughout his time here,” Elder said. “Early in his career you would see an outstanding punt, then an unacceptable punt on the next. Now you’re seeing a more consistent output, which stems from a more consistent approach on a daily basis.”
Still, Renfro’s experience could catapult him into the No. 1 punter job.
“Out of the group, he’s the only guy that’s taken a snap in a live game,” Elder noted, “and he’s done it at a place (Maryland) that has a decent number of people in the stands. Being the only guy that has performed in a game on a Saturday afternoon is certainly one of the things he brings to the table.”
Interestingly enough, Renfro initiated the process that led to him becoming a Vol.
“Nate is from the state of Tennessee, had always been a Tennessee fan growing up,” Elder said. “He always wanted to be here at Tennessee and reached out to us. We thought it was a mutually beneficial situation – bringing in a guy with experience at a position where we were losing our starter from the previous season (Matt Darr). We were not looking to add another individual but he was very interested in us and contacted us, so we brought him in.”
What is the key to becoming the Vols’ first-team punter? Elder said the key is to find “a guy that’s able to come out and punt the ball with accuracy, with great hang time, and do it on a consistent basis.”
Accuracy is a much more critical factor than most fans probably realize. If the coverage team converges on the right side of the field and the kick ventures to the left side, that’s trouble.
“We want guys that are going to put the ball in the right place every single time,” Elder said, “as opposed to someone that’s going to have a big-time punt one play, then not put the next one in the proper place.”
Even a punter with great hang time, great direction and great distance is useless, of course, if he gets the occasional punt blocked. That’s why Tennessee has a stop-watch on each practice punt to make sure kickers are unloading in the acceptable “get-off” time.
|Tennessee freshman punter Tommy Townsend|
“If you don’t get it off in a timely manner, you’re going to be susceptible to punt blocks,” Elder said, “and there’s no bigger play in the game than a punt block, as far as momentum is concerned.”
Jones said Tennessee’s preferred get-off time is 1.8 seconds, adding that the other critical factors in a quality punt are “your kick placement, your landmarks and your hang time.”
A stickler for stats, Jones noted that a coverage unit typically has 6.7 seconds “to run down and make a tackle or force a fair catch. So all of that goes into it – the operation time, the hang time, the kick placement, and being able to play field position – whether it's pooch kicking, whether it's coming out of your own end or the ability to flip field position.”
Neither Daniel nor Townsend nor Renfro is likely to match Darr’s 2014 average of 42.2 yards with 30 fair catches and only 11 touchbacks. Still, Elder is optimistic.
“We feel very good about the group as a whole,” he said, “and we feel that will be a positive group for us this fall.”