Although the work is temporary, it is vital. Cunningham's five-game stint will cover games at UCLA, vs. Florida and at Auburn. A blocked punt or a poor net average could prove decisive in any of those games.
As Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer put it: "Anybody that's followed football knows that if you punt five or six time in a game, those 8, 10 and 12-yard returns add up to 50, 60 or 70 yards of hidden yardage that we try to make sure is in our favor."
Last September, with Colquitt nursing a sore hamstring, Cunningham handled the punting chores in Game 2 vs. Southern Miss. He performed adequately, kicking three times for a 40.7-yard average. He has never punted against a name program, however, and he has never punted on the road as a collegian.
Still, Fulmer is confident the 6-3, 210-pound sophomore can handle the job.
"Chad's had a good summer, worked hard," the head man said. "I'm very hopeful Chad can do a great job for us."
If he doesn't, Cunningham's temporary employment may not last the full five games. Several other Vols have applied for his job.
"We've got a couple of other guys we've brought in to take a look at," Fulmer said. "The job is Chad's but it's open to competition, like every position on our team."
Punting is not a simple task at Tennessee. Booming the ball a good distance isn't enough to keep the job. You have to kick it quickly to avoid having it blocked. You have to achieve superior hang time. And you have to direct the ball toward the sideline, so Tennessee's coverage team can converge in one area rather than spreading out from sideline to sideline.
Fulmer put it this way: "I'm looking for consistency, for time, for height and for location."
Making Cunningham's task a bit simpler is the return of last season's deep snapper.
"We're very blessed to have Morgan Cox back," Fulmer noted. "He does a great job as the snapper."
Another potential plus is the fact Tennessee changed its coverage scheme since Cunningham's appearance against Southern Miss last fall. The new scheme seems to be working better than its predecessor.
"I changed the protection and coverage last year in the fourth ball game, and it really helped our coverage," Fulmer said. "We'll start with that and have the chance to do either."