KNOXVILLE — Like the other thousands of fans inside Neyland Stadium that cloudy afternoon on the third Saturday in April, George Bullock saw what happened.
One Tennessee kicker missed a field goal. The other followed suit shortly thereafter.
Bullock's reaction was natural for someone who would soon enter the Volunteers' kicking competition.
"It happens to everyone," he told the Times Free Press earlier this week. "I'm never going to say, 'Good, my teammates messed up,' or anything like that. But I am glad to have the opportunity that I've been told I'm going to be able to have -- the opportunity to come in and compete with all the other kickers."
The recent Knoxville West High School graduate made the short move to UT's campus earlier this week along with most of the Vols' 2012 signing class. When UT begins its summer program Monday, the wide-open place-kicking competition will begin among freshman Bullock, junior Michael Palardy and sophomore walk-on Derrick Brodus. It's one that figures to extend into August.
The Vols' struggles in the kicking game are nothing new and alarmingly continued with the misses in spring practice's most game-like situation. Palardy, once ranked the top high school kicker in the nation, holds a 14-of-21 career mark on field goals, has just six touchbacks on 88 kickoffs in two seasons and has battled nagging leg injuries in both of his seasons at UT.
Brodus has kicked in just one game in his career, albeit a memorable one when he went from his couch to last-minute starting kicker against Middle Tennessee State last year.
Bullock said his primary focus will be kickoffs and field goals, in that order. He had a scholarship offer to kick at Navy, and he earned a scholarship offer from UT after attending the Vols' kicking camp last summer. Bullock called it a "dream come true," committing shortly after receiving his offer.
"It was kind of one of the things they talked about in recruiting right off the bat," he said. "At their kicking camp last year, they said, really with any position, they said, 'We're bringing in guys that are ready to compete and ready to play.' They said no one has a secure spot.
"I feel confident in my kicking right now, and I think that as I continue to get better and as I become more consistent then, yes, I certainly have a shot at it."
Though his kicking stats weren't gaudy, Bullock's leg strength made him an attractive option for UT. He made seven of 10 field-goal attempts last fall after a 7-of-16 junior season and put roughly 80 percent of his kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks in those two seasons. The nation's No. 15 kicker prospect according to 247Sports also earned an invitation to the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in December.
Bullock, who said he's dreamed of kicking for the hometown Vols since he grew up playing soccer, has been tutored by kicking coach Mike McCabe, a former professional punter, an ex-college assistant and now the coach at Prattville High School in Alabama. Bullock spent nearly a month in Prattville last summer training, lifting weights and conditioning.
At McCabe's One on One kicking camps, Bullock got an up-close view at some other high-school kickers, whom he called his competition.
"I feel like I learned a lot from him," Bullock said, "a lot of things that can help out in the mental side of the game and also the physical aspect of it."
None of that will make the transition to college easier for Bullock. Only one freshman kicker has made the coaches' postseason All-SEC team, and that was when UT's Daniel Lincoln earned second-team honors in 2007. Though true freshman kickers have made immediate impacts in the SEC in the last decade, LSU's James Hairston, last season's All-SEC freshman-team selection, was strictly a kickoff specialist.
His strong leg coupled with kickoffs being moved up 5 yards to the 35-yard line may make kickoff specialist Bullock's best bet, though he's thinking bigger.
"It's honestly the same as high school," he said. "You still have a snap, a hold and a kick. That doesn't change at all. You can't go out there and start thinking about your swing mechanics and start thinking about all these different aspects of the kick.
"You just go out there and trust what you've trained for. I don't really worry about how far the kick is going to be, what hash it's going to be. I just go out there and kick it."
Only three players from Tennessee's 2012 signing class have yet to show up on campus. Tailbacks Davante Bourque and Quenshaun Watson and highly regarded junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson are expected to enroll when second-session classes in July. After six players enrolled in January and went through spring drills, 12 others began first-session summer classes Thursday:
• CB Deion Bonner
• WR Drae Bowles
• K George Bullock
• LB Kenny Bynum
• WR Jason Croom
• CB Daniel Gray
• WR Alton "Pig" Howard
• LB Justin King
• LB LaTroy Lewis
• NT Daniel McCullers
• S LaDarrelle McNeil
• DT Danny O'Brien
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 ...