Impact frosh: Matt Darr

Our series on freshmen who could make a major impact on Tennessee's 2010 football season continues today with installment No. 4.

Since the NCAA restored freshman eligibility to college football in 1972, four punters have been four-year starters at the University of Tennessee. Matt Darr is hoping to be No. 5.

Jimmy Colquitt handled the punting duties from 1981-84. Ten years later Tom Hutton was a four-year starter from 1991-94. Ten years later Dustin Colquitt accomplished the same feat, reigning from 2001-2004. He passed the baton to younger brother Britton Colquitt, who was the No. 1 punter from 2005-2008.

Jimmy Colquitt and Hutton won the punting duties as true freshmen. Dustin Colquitt redshirted as a freshman, then claimed the job in Year 2. Rather than watch his older brother for two years, Britton Colquitt grayshirted in 2003, then redshirted in 2004 before inheriting the punting chores.

Darr, rated the No. 1 punting prospect in America by last winter, is likely to join Hutton and the three Colquitts as four-year starters at UT. The question is: Will he start his four-year run as a true freshman (a la Jimmy Colquitt and Hutton) or will he start his four-year run as a redshirt freshman (a la Dustin and Britton Colquitt)?

That's a question that probably won't be answered until shortly before Tennessee's 2010 opener vs. UT-Martin.

The reason: Senior Chad Cunningham boasts a significant advantage in experience. He has 19 college starts to his credit, including all 13 games last fall. Cunningham averaged a solid 42.1 yards per boot in 2009, ranking fifth among the 12 SEC punters in gross punting.

On the down side, Tennessee's net average of 34.4 yards ranked ninth among SEC programs and Cunningham had one punt blocked last fall.

Since there clearly is room for improvement in the punting game, Darr has a chance to unseat the senior and win the top job this fall.

Darr is a 6-2, 215-pounder who also started at linebacker for his high school team in Bakersfield, Calif., recording 93 tackles as a junior and 96 as a senior. That means he should be good at covering punts, as well as unloading them.

He certainly has enough leg to be an SEC punter, having averaged 46.3 yards per kick as a junior and 42.9 as a senior. There is more to punting at the college level than distance, however. A punter must be able to unload quickly, lest his kick be blocked. He must be able to direct the ball to a specific portion of the field, so the coverage unit won't be spread all over the place. He must be able to get quality hang time, giving his coverage unit ample opportunity to converge on the return man as he is fielding the kick. And he must be able to handle the pressure of performing before 80,000 to 100,000 fans, plus a massive TV audience.

Matt Darr should develop these abilities in time and be a four-year starter for the Big Orange. The question is: Will his four-year run start in 2010 or 2011?

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