KNOXVILLE — Matt Darr excelled at so many different spots during his high school sports career that punting was never really the first thing on his mind.
Nevertheless, the University of Tennessee redshirt freshman was rated the nation’s best punter coming out of Frontier High School in Bakersfield, Calif., which is a testament to his raw ability. There’s been a much bigger learning curve than he expected, but now Darr has a year of studying the art of his craft along with some advice from the first family of UT punting.
“Every single punt [last year] was something different,” Darr said last week. “[Coach Derek] Dooley even said we’d sit down in meetings and he’d ask me about that punt and I just wouldn’t have any response because I just didn’t know. Now I know my body, I know when something goes wrong and that’s the main thing — being able to recognize it, because then you can make the adjustment to fix it. I didn’t know anything [last year] compared to what I do now.
“I’m just thankful I was able to have that year to learn and watch and take it all in.”
Darr played tight end and linebacker as a high school junior but concentrated on linebacker as a senior. He also won consecutive state titles in the shot put in addition to the discus title as a junior.
With so much attention elsewhere, the 6-foot-1, 221-pound Darr had limited time to focus on punting.
“The thing with Matt is he hasn’t always been a pure specialist,” Volunteers special teams coordinator Eric Russell said. “He was playing on defense, he was playing on offense, he was a track guy; so really as far as training specifically just to be a punter, he’s years and years behind a lot of guys. It was starting at square one.
“He was frustrated [during spring practice], but this summer [he got] to spend some time in the position, so getting him consistent with his stepping patterns, he’s done a good job.”
Darr said he learned from watching Chad Cunningham from the sideline last season, but former UT punters and Knoxville natives Dustin and Britton Colquitt gave him a lot of advice during the offseason. Dustin gave Darr some tips during his visit in the spring.
“I took a few of his ideas into spring ball and noticed that they were helping me, so all spring ball I was calling him on the phone talking to him about different things,” Darr said. “We just kind of built up a friendship like that.”
That relationship expanded this summer when Darr needed to go back to California to pick up his truck from home. With Dustin punting for the Denver Broncos and Britton with the Chiefs in Kansas City, Darr made two stops on his cross-country trek back to Knoxville.
“We were able to go out and punt and they show me things and watch film and I just learn,” Darr said. “I really didn’t have much of any idea as far as everything that goes into punting: different situations, playing with the winds, short-field punting, backed-up punting, all these kinds of things. You kind of need someone to show you that stuff.
“It was different for me coming back. I was doing so much in high school — and just to do all that stuff good was fine — but when you come to Tennessee or any SEC school, you have to do that one thing but you have to do it perfect. That was a little different for me, and it took some adjusting.”
Darr will punt for the first time in his UT career in next Saturday’s season opener against Montana, but now the adjustments he’ll have to make are pretty simple.
“Quit over-analyzing everything. Go kick,” Russell said. “Talent’s not the question. Shorten it up and let’s get this thing out of here and just let it rip.”
Odds and ends
Freshman tailback Marlin Lane dropped the first punt he went back to return in Wednesday night’s mock game, but it was just his second drop of camp per Dooley, who joked that it was “part of the script.” ... Da’Rick Rogers and Tauren Poole were the first-team kickoff returners UT used Wednesday night. ... Senior linebacker Daryl Vereen has watched freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt earn the starts at outside linebacker, but Vereen has found a spot as a linebacker in the Vols’ nickel package. ... The Vols took Thursday off from practice and will begin preparations for Montana today before using Saturday and Sunday as recovery days.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...