KNOXVILLE — Phillip Fulmer isn’t afraid to say it.
“I love Ben Martin,” Tennessee’s football coach said Thursday. “I just love him.”
A lot of coaches fell in love with Martin during the recruiting process, but the Cincinnati native stunned many by picking the Volunteers over nearby Ohio State. The lean, athletic 6-foot-3 defensive end still contributed after injuring his knee last preseason, but he didn’t regain that dynamic burst he showed throughout August.
Martin is healthy again this spring, and he’s added about 10 pounds, up to around 240. He’s again showing why former UT linebacker Ryan Karl called him a “freak of nature.”
“Ben plays hard every down,” Fulmer said. “He’s still got technique work to do, and he’s still got some assignment work to do, but Ben Martin is one of those guys that you just love to coach. You love to be around him as a person, and you love to watch him in practice, because he’s going hard every day.
“I cannot wait to see him in a game full-time.”
Martin is still slotted behind rising senior Robert Ayers on the depth chart, but UT’s second-team defensive line typically plays as much as the starters. One of just three healthy, natural ends on an injury-depleted spring roster, Martin has gotten plenty of action and one-on-one instruction.
“It helps me tremendously,” Martin said. “Now my coach has more time to teach me things, because we’re not in a hurry. We’re not trying to prepare for a game. Now he can slow down and teach me what I need to know, and I’m better for it.”
Martin’s biggest issues are still pad leverage and hand techniques. As one of the best athletes on UT’s roster, he rarely had issues running around or through any high school opposition. Sheer athletic ability still gets him into the backfield sometimes — he was almost always the first man down the field on kickoff coverage before last season’s injury — but premier SEC offensive tackles usually have answers for any one move.
“I’m coming off the ball pretty well right now, but I need to work on my pad leverage a lot,” Martin said. “It’s all about pad leverage, hands and getting off of blocks quick. Those 300-pounders weight a lot more than I do at 240, so I have to get on and get off of them quick.
“A lot of the guys are just as fast and just as strong as you, so you just can’t run through them. You’ve got to mix it up, give them some fakes. It’s all about keeping them off balance while you’re staying on balance and putting on good moves.”
Progress for punter
Some of Fulmer’s biggest tongue-lashings the past two years have been directed at inconsistent punter Chad Cunningham, who was forced atop the depth chart for at least five games following Britton Colquitt’s latest off-the-field incident.
Whether he really believes it or is simply trying new motivational tactics, Fulmer was more complimentary of Cunningham on Thursday.
“We’ve worked him a lot and given him a lot of different situations,” Fulmer said. “He’s done a good job of getting better. That rascal, sometimes it seems like he does a better job in scrimmages, when it’s live, or in a game like Southern Miss last year — when I went and scared him to death, because I don’t know if he’d had a good punt all week long (in practice). But he went out there and had a couple of nice punts.
“He’s definitely gotten more consistent this week.”
Cunningham echoed Fulmer’s thoughts on his two biggest shortcomings so far — getting rid of the ball quickly and putting the proper placement and hang time on it.
“If you don’t get the kick off, then it’s going to get blocked, and that’s not going to be good,” Cunningham said. “The biggest thing for me is getting it off and being consistent.
“I’m really working on my consistency right now, because I feel like that’s where I need my biggest (improvement). I’m getting my direction down, and everything’s starting to come together. I feel like I had a good scrimmage on Saturday, and I just want to build on that every day.”
Hardesty hurt again
Fulmer said injury-plagued tailback Montario Hardesty “probably won’t get to scrimmage Saturday” because of another foot injury. January enrollee Tauren Poole is questionable with a minor knee injury.
“We’re having a tough time a little bit at tailback,” Fulmer said. “You start off with great depth, but ... all of a sudden, the tailback depth is not quite what it was.”
Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said he expected rising senior Arian Foster to be more prominently involved this Saturday after getting one touch in the first major scrimmage. Foster is noticeably thinner; he claims to be down from 225 to 215 pounds.
“I’m already at least one step quicker than last season,” Foster said Thursday.
He said he and other teammates hope to see Hardesty back “as soon as possible.”
“I wish the best for Montario,” he said. “When he’s healthy, he’s a great back. It helps the team. If he can stay healthy, I’m pretty sure that we can show out this year.”
Mayo moving up
As Fulmer predicted months ago, former UT linebacker Jerod Mayo is reportedly soaring up NFL draft boards.
Longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper wrote Thursday that Mayo is now the 13th-best overall prospect. Kiper recently projected Mayo to be selected No. 24 overall by the Titans, but Tuesday he suggested Mayo might not be available by that point.
“The more you watch film of Mayo, you realize just how versatile he can be at the next level,” Kiper wrote. “He also has the best cover skills of any linebacker in this year's draft.
“Fast, athletic and tremendously instinctive, Mayo is a form tackler who leaves a lasting impression when he arrives on the scene.”
Mayo had one season of eligibility left but declared for the draft after leading the Southeastern Conference in tackles. He was originally given a third-round grade by the draft’s advisory committee but maintained that his stock would rise, and he is now the highest-rated linebacker on Kiper’s board.
Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden is still the top overall player on Kiper’s board. Vanderbilt offensive tackle Chris Williams (No. 12) is the only other SEC player ahead of Mayo on the list.