Making kicks and believers

Phillip Fulmer says redshirt freshman kicker Daniel Lincoln has been a "pleasant development" but NOT a "pleasant surprise" this season.

Apparently, Tennessee's head coach is psychic because no one else was expecting Daniel Lincoln to connect on the first four field-goal attempts of his college career.

Heck, Lincoln was so erratic in preseason – missing three field goals and a PAT in one scrimmage – that Britton Colquitt was ticketed to handle the punting AND placement chores, something no Vol has done since the 1950s. Lincoln got the placement job by default, however, when Colquitt pulled a quadriceps muscle in preseason.

Lincoln may have won the job on luck but he has kept the job on performance. Consider:

In Game 1 at Cal he nailed a clutch 41-yard field goal that pulled the Vols within 38-31 in the fourth quarter. In Game 2 vs. Southern Miss he hit a 38-yarder that pulled Tennessee within 13-10 in the first quarter, made a 36-yarder that gave UT a 20-16 lead in the third quarter, then nailed a 46-yarder in the fourth quarter that widened the gap to 37-19 and put the game on ice.

After being noticeably imperfect in August, Lincoln is perfect in September. He just might be the surprise player of 2007 thus far … except in the eyes of his head coach.

"It's not a surprise because he had a good spring," Fulmer said during his Sunday teleconference. "It's been a pleasant development."

However you characterize his performance, Lincoln has been making kicks and making believers with his field-goal accuracy this fall.

"I'm really proud of him," Fulmer said. "Daniel's been a really hard worker, an ‘I can do anything' type of guy. We just have to keep him focused and channeled. Give him and (holder) Casey Woods and (snapper) Morgan Cox a lot of credit."

Perhaps the coaches deserve some credit, too. They know Lincoln's limitations and have not asked him to step outside his comfort zone. Or, as Fulmer put it: "We're not going to ask him to kick outside of what he can do."

Lincoln is one ingredient in what might be the NCAA's youngest kicking game. With Colquitt still sidelined, redshirt freshman Chad Cunningham is handling Tennessee's punting and kickoff chores. He averaged 40.7 yards on punts vs. Southern Miss (with zero return yards) and did a nice job on kickoffs.

Lincoln handled the opening kickoff vs. USM but was replaced after his kick came down at the 13-yard line and was returned 23 yards. Cunningham assumed the duties thereafter and performed exceptionally well.

Here's a recap:

He kicked 66 yards to the 4, 65 yards to the 5, 38 yards (on a squib kick) to the 32 and 56 yards to the 14. Due to a personal-foul penalty, Cunningham had to launch his fifth kickoff from UT's 15-yard line. He rose to the occasion, however, banging a 64-yarder to the 21 that wound up being fumbled. Saving his best for last, he boomed a 69-yarder to the 1-yard line (near the sideline, to boot) that was returned just 17 yards.

"Chad Cunningham did a nice job," Fulmer said.

In addition to the two redshirt freshmen who handled the kicking chores Saturday night, Tennessee had two true freshmen handling the kick return chores. That would be Denarius Moore and Lennon Creer, former teammates at Tatum (Texas) High School.

Moore also returned kicks in Game 1. Creer was subbing in Game 2 for junior Arian Foster.

"Arian had a bruised knee most of the week, and that wasn't the place he needed to be …back there," Fulmer explained. "We wanted to see what those freshmen could do."

Although the Vol boss would prefer to have a couple of veterans returning kicks, he believes Creer and Moore are the best options available in spite of their youth.

"I don't know if anybody would want two freshmen back there," Fulmer said, "unless you were confident they knew what they were doing.

Tennessee's kicking game may gain some maturity in Game 3 at Florida. Colquitt's quad stiffened up a bit after he did the punting in Game 1, so he was withheld from Game 2. The junior from Knoxville could reclaim the punting duties in time for this Saturday's game at Gainesville.

"I do expect him to play," Fulmer said. "I'm expecting him to be back"

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