Shedding the shield

Seeing several opponents racing toward him can be unnerving for a punter, even if he has a shield of blockers to pick them up.

"Yeah, definitely," Tennessee junior Chad Cunningham said when asked about the "spread" punt formation the Vols utilized a year ago. "You try not to think about it because you know your (shield blockers) are going to make the block ... but after the punt you think, 'Man, that guy almost got that.'"

Sometimes it's worse than "almost." Cunningham's third career punt last September was blocked and returned for a touchdown by UCLA, helping spur the underdog Bruins to a 27-24 upset victory.

Cunningham, who handled the punting chores while Britton Colquitt was suspended for the first five games of 2008, had no kicks blocked the rest of last season. He experienced several close calls, though, largely because the spread formation allows a few defenders to sift through gaps before they are picked up - theoretically, at least - by the shield blockers stationed a few yards in front of the punter.

New special teams coach Eddie Gran has scrapped the spread punt formation in favor of a tight punt formation, and Cunningham couldn't be happier.

"Oh, definitely," he said. "Just knowing that little shield isn't four yards in front of you is definitely good for me. I've still got to get my punts off on time and everything but it gives me confidence and excitement to get out there and do it."

Cunningham's start on Rocky Top was rocky indeed. In addition to having a punt blocked in Game 1 at UCLA, he had a punt returned 78 yards for a touchdown in Game 3 vs. Florida. In each case he was assigned much of the blame. Head coach Phillip Fulmer said Cunningham wasn't properly lined up behind his shield in Game 1 and that he didn't place his kick close enough to the sidelines in Game 3.

Naturally, Cunningham's confidence was plummeting at this point.

"I got down," he conceded. "But you have to keep going, keep getting better. Hopefully, that's not going to happen again."

After struggling in Games 1, 2 and 3 last fall, Cunningham redeemed himself in Game 4 at Auburn. After booming a 57-yard punt just before halftime, his second-half punts included one downed at the 4-yard line, one that rolled out of bounds at the 2-yard line, one that was fair-caught at the 12-yard line and one that rolled dead at the 5-yard line.

"That was definitely a confidence booster, putting so many kicks inside the 20 and everything," he recalled. "But every game's got to be that way. You can't just have one good game. You need to be consistent."

Spurred by his impressive finish at Auburn, Cunningham averaged an eye-catching 43.8 yards per punt against Northern Illinois in Game 5 before handing the reins to Colquitt for the remainder of 2008.

Those five games in '08 should help Cunningham tremendously in '09.

"Experience makes all the difference in the world," he said. "After each punt I'd come back and do something a little different. I got a little more confidence after each punt and I'd take that to the practice field. That's a huge part of it - practicing the way you play."

With or without a shield.

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