published Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Tennessee Vols specialists practice with pressure

KNOXVILLE -- Butch Jones is bringing new offensive and defensive systems to Tennessee as the Volunteers' new football coach.

The routine is changing for the team's specialists, too.

"Surprisingly, quite a few things have changed," rising senior kicker Michael Palardy said wryly Tuesday morning.

Some have changed more than others.

Palardy's routine of kicking a football through the goal posts now comes with spraying water from teammates, flying hats from the coaching staff and Jones' own distraction actions.

"Coach Jones was sticking his finger in the earhole of my helmet today," Palardy said. "He wants me to stay focused. He's just trying to distract me. He'll go and slap my helmet and call me different names, so it's fun and it's good and it keeps me real focused."

Compared to the end of Saturday's scrimmage at Neyland Stadium, the nuisances Palardy kicked through during the Vols' field-goal period Tuesday were minor agitations.

After Tennessee had practiced for nearly three hours, Palardy lined up for a field goal longer than 40 yards, and the rest of the team gathered closely around the Florida native, long snapper J.R. Carr and holder Tyler Drummer like a gallery of fans surrounds a golfer hitting his tee shot.

With the offense or defense receiving practice points depending on the outcomes of field goals by Palardy and fellow kickers George Bullock and Derrick Brodus, Jones is generating pressure situations he can evaluate.

"I've got to find out who our field-goal kicker is, who's going to be able to get points for us under pressure," the coach said Saturday. "When you play in front of 102,700 people in Neyland Stadium every home game, pressure's what you put on yourself. We have to do that."

The nation's second-rated kicker out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale said such practice pressures are new to him.

"I've never experienced a practice or any kind of situation like that ever before, and I think it's good," Palardy said. "I think it's going to benefit us a lot in the kicking game. A lot of pressure's put on us, a lot of pressure's put on me and I put a lot of pressure on myself, so I think that Coach Jones has a done a pretty good job at trying to keep us focused and make sure that we execute the way that we're supposed to.

"I'll kick for the offense one time, I'll kick for the defense and we'll go back and forth. It's positive pressure. My teammates support me make or miss, so it's been really good."

In another change from last season, Tennessee's coaches have made operation times a priority as well. When Palardy, Matt Darr and the Vols' other punters are kicking, an assistant will time how long it takes the punter to get the punt off after catching the snap. The time is announced over the speakers at practice and likely logged for later review.

Palardy's struggles at Tennessee have made him an easy target for fan scrutiny and criticism. After missing five field-goal tries as a sophomore in 2011, Palardy missed only three kicks last year, though a 43-yard miss proved to be costly in the four-overtime loss to Missouri. As Tennessee's primary punter, Palardy averaged 43 yards and booted six punts longer than 50 yards.

All 10 of his career misses have come from 39 or more yards, and Palardy has just four makes of 39 or more yards in three seasons. Yet he has been the Vols' best kicker through five spring practices, and he's feeling good despite of whatever distractions are thrown at him.

"I've kicked the best I have since I've been here, and I feel real confident," he said. "I guess maybe that comes with age and experience, but Coach Jones has really helped me with the distractions. I think I've made huge strides in the offseason in terms of confidence.

"[Strength coach Dave] Lawson has done an awesome job in the strength program and I'm a lot stronger than I ever have been, so everything's been going really well."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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