Phase II improvements at Neyland Stadium
Mike Hamilton explains improvements at Neyland Stadium
Tennessee Stat Book
Tennessee punter Chad Cunningham knows the story. Shoot, he heard it first hand just this week.
Former UT punter David Leaverton called the sophomore and told the tale of his horrific day in the Rose Bowl in 1997, and he didn't spare any of the gory details.
Leaverton, a fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2001, laid out the specifics of his worst day in football: The timeout snafu that resulted in a botched snap for a safety and each of the shanks that opened the door for a fourth-quarter UCLA comeback and nearly cost third-ranked Tennessee the game.
Cunningham will start UT's first five games - beginning with Monday's opener at the Rose Bowl against UCLA (TV: ESPN, 8 p.m.) - while All-SEC punter Britton Colquitt serves a suspension, definitely knows that ghost story.
He's just not spooked.
"I actually talked to him (Leaverton) about it," said Cunningham, a sophomore. "He told me his story, and I know that's not going to happen to me so I haven't thought about that."
Since being named the starter in February, Cunningham has been thinking a lot about UCLA. Mostly, though, he's been working.
After last season ended, Cunningham began training with Marc Feuerbach, who runs Premier Kicking in Calhoun, Ga., about 65 miles west of Cunningham's hometown of Dawsonville.
The goal was to reduce the time it took Cunningham to receive the snap and get the kick away - exactly 2 seconds, UT coach Phillip Fulmer says - and make those kicks as consistent as possible while doing it.
So Cunningham, who also spent time with a psychologist to prepare mentally, met Feuerbach a few times a month with regular phone conversations in between sessions. Cunningham even took time over spring break to work with Feuerbach, a former kicker who also trains several specialists at Georgia Tech, a few smaller colleges and some high school players.
The workouts focused on mechanics, at times analyzing every aspect of Cunningham's kicking motion the way a golfer might break down his swing. For Cunningham, consistency came before the stopwatch.
"Everyone says it's about the get-off time, and it is," Feuerbach said. "There's a time that coaches want, but we've got to figure out how to get that time down and make everything else work, too. We've got to gradually build up to that."
Cunningham made strides in the spring. With an offseason of more work, results have followed on the field during preseason camp.
"Chad's not only competing for these five ballgames, but he's also competing for a job in the next three years for this team," Fulmer said. "He did a nice job last year, at times in the spring, and certainly worked hard this summer. You could just tell. He was trim, looked good, in great shape. Two weeks ago, I really challenged him about the times. He's done well with it."
He's also done well with the increased attention since the announcement that he would take over the starting role.
"I like it because it puts pressure on you," says Cunningham, who also played quarterback at Dawson County (Ga.) High School. "And I like pressure because I feel like when I have pressure, I do better. I've definitely loved talking to the media and all that because it makes me do better. I've enjoyed it."
In Cunningham's only career start, he punted three times for a 40.7-yard average in UT's second game of last season against Southern Miss. He'll also kick off for the Vols this fall, a role he filled most of last season.
This won't be his first trip to Los Angeles, either.
In 2005, Cunningham flew to L.A. with Parade All-American kicker Richard Jackson, who plays at Clemson, to attend Chris Sailer's elite kicking camp as one of the top 12 kickers and punters in the nation.
And Feuerbach, for one, isn't worried about this trip turning into anything but a success story for Cunningham.
"I think Chad's one of those game players," Feuerbach said. "Chad's the kind of guy I want to take into battle with me. He rises to pressure. He's the kind of kid that can go train and kick a few balls, but when you put pressure on him, he's 10 times better."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.