'Totally different punter'

It was difficult to tell which was more noticeable Thursday at Haslam Field - the "thump" when Chad Cunningham's foot hit the ball during Tennessee's punting drills or the smile on his face afterward.

This much is for certain, though: Chad Cunningham was one happy camper following perhaps his finest practice as a Volunteer.

"I'm a totally different punter than I was last year - consistency-wise, hang time-wise," he said, grinning broadly. "Everything is so much better than it was last year. I can't wait for the first game. I'm real excited about it."

Cunningham, a 6-3, 198-pound junior from Dawsonville, Ga., averaged a pedestrian 39.5 yards per punt last fall. He was booming 45-yarders with consistency on Thursday, however.

"I think I'm hitting the ball really well," he said, flashing another big grin. "I can't wait till Saturday, when we do all of our kicking live (in a full-scale scrimmage). It'll be a good experience to get some live rushes and that type thing."

Cunningham says he has been punting exceptionally well all week. Thursday's kicks just commanded a little more attention from the media.

"I've been hitting it really consistent with really great hang times," he said. "I just feel really comfortable. This is the best camp that I've ever had."

Cunningham was adequate at best in 2008 as a five-game fill-in while No. 1 punter Britton Colquitt was suspended. He averaged 39.0 yards per punt in the opener vs. UCLA, 34.5 in Game 2 vs. UAB and 37.5 in Game 3 vs. Florida, with one punt returned for a touchdown.

Although he finished with a so-so 39.9-yard average on 10 kicks in Game 4 at Auburn, Cunningham punted exceptionally well in the second half , repeatedly pinning the Tigers inside their 15-yard line. Spurred by that performance, he averaged 45.3 yards on three punts in Game 5 vs. Northern Illinois before handing the reins to Colquitt.

Asked what areas he has improved most since last fall, Cunningham answered without hesitation:

"Consistency and hang time by far," he said. "Those are some of the most important things in punting."

One reason for his progress is the presence of David Harrington, a junior college transfer from Orange Grove College in California. Harrington got off to a good start last week, which caused Cunningham to do better.

"He's definitely pushing me," Cunningham said. "He can hit the ball real well, and he's definitely making me step my game up. I'm glad he's here. Coach Kiffin is all about competition, so I'm glad he (Harrington) is here to help me get better."

Harrington isn't the only factor in Cunningham's improvement, however. He pinpoints several other keys.

"Experience, working hard in the weight room, getting coached and that type thing," he said. "And my confidence is a lot better ... everything."

He failed to wow anyone last fall, but Cunningham might turn some heads this season ... especially if he kicks the way he did in Thursday's practice.

"There's a new excitement, and I'm real excited about it," he said. "I definitely feel more confident just because I've gotten so much better."

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