KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee must replace every starter on the offensive and defensive line in 2014, a topic well documented in training camp thus far. But those are not the only units on the field that are undergoing a complete overhaul from 2013.
In 2013, Michael Palardy kicked off every ball for Tennessee.
He dropped back to boom away every punt. He lined up for every field goal and extra point. It was a heavy load for a player that coach Butch Jones
referred to as the team MVP, one that will require more than one person to replace him.
Combined with the loss of long snapper J.R. Carr and holder Tyler Drummer Tennessee will have to replace all of its specialists in the kicking game, a daunting task. Even if the departing unit was comprised of just three players, it will take more to replace them and their experience on the field.
"It goes unnoticed," Jones said on not just replacing his kicker, but also the entire unit. "The long snapper is critical, they set the temperament for the punter. For our kicker, everything is about the snap, the hold, the kick."
The competition is strong. Redshirt senior Matt Darr brings experience to the punting battle. Redshirt sophomore George Bullock has been in the program for two years, but has yet to see game action after a leg injury suffered in preseason camp in 2012. Freshman Aaron Medley comes to campus after being a pupil of former Vol kicker James Wilhoit.
Special teams have been a special focus for the Vols, as the team witnessed Palardy graduate and move on to the National Football League. Among the flurry of freshmen now in camp in 2014, Tennessee native Medley is getting the opportunity to fill those critical shoes and do it quickly.
"Aaron [Medley] he has been pretty consistent all camp," said Jones. "Today we did some game-ending kicks at different field positions, assorted hash marks. Aaron Medley was five-for-five with pressure and that is why we concluded practice."
While his recent performances are building confidence, Coach Jones and the coaching staff continue to throw an assortment of distractions and pressures into Medley's daily practice routine. Babies crying. Glass breaking. And it's all by design.
"They're trying anything that could mess me up," added Medley. "We're just trying to prepare for when the 102,455 get out there. I try to focus on technique and find two or three words to say over and over in my head. For me, they're `hips'. Get your hips through the ball and drive up."
"We will continue to manufacture stressful situations for these individuals," said Jones. "As you know, field position and kicking game are critical elements to winning football games."
Along with Jones, Medley is also certain that the constant drills, distractions and repetitions will ultimately pay off. And while his teammates will work hard to provide him with the least amount of chances possible, Medley admits he cannot wait to be called upon for a game-winning kick with ten seconds on the clock.
"For me, I want that to happen," said Medley. "I want to be out there. I just have to embrace it and go do my thing."
RECOGNIZING THE LITTLE THINGS
Redshirt sophomore George Bullock is focused on the little things. After working his way back from a broken leg during preseason camp in 2012, the Knoxville native used last season to sort through the technical aspects for a full recovery, which was a big thing for him.
"It took me a while as far as rehab," said Bullock. "Our strength and conditioning staff did a great job of getting me back quickly. We started doing kick-offs today and I like my kick-off reps. I think I've certainly been more dialed in for this camp."
Kicking alongside senior Matt Darr and freshman Aaron Medley, Bullock also cites the competition in this year's camp as a driving force and motivator to make an impact for the Vols this season.
"It comes down to a lot of things," said Bullock. "It comes down to our preparation, making sure we're doing things and seeing things ourselves and going through the reps mentally. Coach Jones talks about having mental toughness all the time and so doing the reps off the field is very important.
"We know we have an open competition right now. We don't have a daily score system as far as kicking and punting," he added. "We're just each trying to do our best every day and push each other. The biggest thing is going through your routine and making sure you're ready for those kicks."
Sometimes a change of scenery can do wonders for an athlete looking to hone his skills. For senior punter Matt Darr, this summer provided him with the perfect opportunity to do just that as he hit the road to work with NFL and other collegiate punters and kickers from across the country.
"Getting with other college and NFL kickers and punters in the offseason to train is really where you learn," said Darr. "You start to develop your own technique and habits. It was very beneficial for me and I'm carrying that over into camp right now."
Among the long list of professionals that Darr kicked with this summer, he notes that Ryan Allen of the New England Patriots provided him with the most insight during a trip to Mobile, Alabama.
"I really enjoyed getting to work with Ryan [Allen]," said Darr. "We worked a lot on get-off time and did some cool drills as far as technique with the drop. It was just neat for us to be out on the field in kind of a one-on-one. We just basically went out and punted every day."
Entering his final season at Tennessee, Darr also credits Jones for giving him the opportunity to travel and work on his craft. Today, he is applying everything he learned to master his punts and a secure the No. 1 spot in Michael Palardy-style fashion.
"I feel like I've gotten more comfortable with myself, with my body and with my techniques," added Darr. "I got to play behind Palardy and he was a heck of a punter. I think that me and him spending so much time together made us both better. Everybody remembers you for your last play and I'm really hopeful that now is my time."
VOLS READY TO CALL ON COLEMAN
From the beginning, freshman tackle Coleman Thomas knew that he had an opportunity for early playing time. With an entirely new offensive line, Thomas has earned his spot on the starting roster.
Thomas was given the chance to work with the first team during spring practices, and from there has grown comfortable with his role.
"It was overwhelming that they were giving me a chance," Thomas said. "I think I remember the first day of spring practice they were giving me this chance. I kept working hard. I'm going to trust that they're going to put in the right guys on the field."
Now with six fall practices finished, Thomas doesn't feel surprised that he has held onto his starting position.
"I wouldn't say surprised," said Thomas, who is seeing reps as the starting right tackle. "I'm extremely blessed. I trust it in that and I trust it in my hard work. I knew it would all pay off."
Thomas' dedication to becoming the best has helped him to catch the attention of his coaches who openly praise his athleticism.
"I played basketball and baseball as well in high school," Thomas said. "I've always tried to pride myself in being athletic. I've been working hard in the weight room and hopefully I can get both of those components and be the best player that I can be."
Thomas also credits his experienced teammates for preparing him for the starting role.
"The older guys, Kyler Kerbyson, Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson, they've really helped me and taken me under their wing. They told me about the style of play."
"Those three guys, I can't thank them enough. I wouldn't be anywhere where I am right now if it wasn't for them showing me the ropes and what it takes to be an offensive lineman in this program."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)