Still, Cunningham's struggles were not too alarming. Except for a one-game fill-in role while Britton Colquitt was nursing a sore hamstring last fall, Cunningham is a novice to college punting. He projects to grow into the job in time.
Conversely, the fact sophomore place-kicker Daniel Lincoln, a Football Writers Association of America first-team All-American last fall, also stumbled out of the starting gate on Saturday was a considerably bigger concern.
After nailing a 41-yard field goal to start, Lincoln hit just one of three tries from 42 yards. On his next turn he missed two of his first three tries from 32 yards. Standing 3 of 7 – with two misses each from 32 and 42 yards – he was not living up to his All-America billing.
But, needing a strong finish, he got one. Lincoln made his last two attempts from 32 yards, banged home a 52-yarder, then closed a 6-for-6 run by connecting from 41 and 48 yards.
He was, in short, the Daniel Lincoln of old.
Cunningham's rally wasn't quite so dramatic but it was just as significant. After an assortment of line-drive punts in the 35-yard range, he found his stride. He boomed a 47-yarder with excellent hang time, then banged a couple of 45-yarders that appeared as if they might never return to Earth. After the horrible start, he finished with a 42-yard average on 10 punts.
Head coach Phillip Fulmer noticed. When asked afterward if there was a "real bright spot" in the scrimmage, he replied, "Our kickers got better at the end. I actually stuck another punt series in there at the end (to give Cunningham another chance to redeem himself)."
Now that Cunningham and Lincoln have redeemed themselves, the Vols must develop some depth behind the starters. Hensley faded a bit after his good start and finished with a so-so 37.5-yard punting average.
Cunningham took a step toward being the No. 2 kicker, as well as the No. 1 punter. He connected on field-goal tries of 35, 43 and 48 yards, while missing from 32 and 53 yards. The latter appeared on line but a yard short of the crossbar.
Walk-on place-kicker Devin Mathis struggled mightily, making just 2 of 7 field-goal tries during the scrimmage. His successes covered 27 and 31 yards, while his misses came from 41, 41, 32, 32 and 32.