There are certainly better images for a punter to see than an unblocked defender moving towards him at something close to top speed.
But for much of Chad Cunningham's five games as a starter last season, that's much of what he saw each time he kicked. By design, Tennessee's spread punt formation left at least one player unblocked, with a three-man shield a few yards in front of Cunningham for protection.
While Cunningham doesn't blame the formation for two blocked punts a year ago, he's clearly glad to see the Vols return to a more traditional tight punt formation.
"Just knowing that little shield's not 4 yards or 3 yards in front of you is definitely good for me," Cunningham said. "I've still got to get my punts off and times all that stuff, but definitely it gives me confidence and excitement to get out there and do it."
And for the Vols, perhaps, fix it.
Kicker Daniel Lincoln struggled at times last season, none tougher than a 1-for-4 performance in a season-opening loss at UCLA in which he connected from 47 yards to force overtime only to miss a 34-yarder to extend overtime.
But nowhere were the Vols burned by a few big plays than on punts.
Coach: Eddie Gran
Lettermen Lost (1): P - Britton Colquitt
P - Chad Cunningham (Jr., 6-3, 198)
PK - Daniel Lincoln (Jr., 6-0, 203)
DS - Morgan Cox (Sr., 6-2, 195)
H - Bram Cannon (Sr., 6-2, 195)
PR - Gerald Jones (Jr., 6-0, 199)
KR - Dennis Rogan (Jr., 5-10, 178)
Watch For: More consistent play on special teams, especially kick coverage. The Vols should benefit from Gran, who did great things with special teams at Auburn.
Key Stat: While UT improved in the return game, its coverage suffered, especially on punts. Georgia, UCLA and Florida all highlighted those struggles, and opponents averaged 12.6 yards per punt return in 2008.
For the second consecutive year, Florida special teams ace Brandon James returned a punt for a touchdown against the Vols. And as much as those missed field goals hurt against UCLA, a blocked punt for a touchdown gave the Bruins an early 7-0 lead. Northern Illinois partially blocked a punt, and Auburn nearly blocked another.
Part of that was a result of Cunningham taking too much time to kick the ball, something he says he's corrected this offseason.
The focus for Cunningham, who despite the blocks averaged 39.5 yards per punt in five starts last season, has been hang time this offseason.
That's a key component in helping the Vols improve from their 34.9-yard net punting average a year ago, which ranked 10th in the SEC. Another component is Eddie Gran, who in addition to coaching running backs also will serve as the Vols' special teams coordinator.
"We've got to have great hang time and great operation to let our gunners go down and cover," said Gran, who developed a reputation as a strong special teams coach while at Auburn. "You've got to have great technique. It's just like if you're an offensive lineman or on the defensive line or if you're a wide receiver. If your technique's not there, you're going to break down somewhere."
Aside from a 67-yard kick return by South Carolina's Chris Culliver, the Vols didn't suffer any major breakdowns on kickoff coverage.
UT's kickoff returns, handled mainly by cornerback Dennis Rogan, who finished with 698 kick return yards, was solid. Its punt return team finished ninth in the conference with an average of 7.6 yards per return, but receiver Gerald Jones showed a knack with a 40-yard return against Auburn.
Finding a comfort zone should be a little easier this season for Lincoln, as well.
A year after earning freshman All-America honors, Lincoln struggled with consistency. The fact that deep snapper Morgan Cox and holder Bram Cannon both return could make a difference this fall.
The biggest difference, though, could come from the punt team. The Vols could get an impact from any number of talented freshmen in the return game while Jones is healing from a wrist injury - or perhaps even All-America safety Eric Berry.
But Cunningham is tested - and improved - for a full-time run at the starting job. He's more comfortable, too.
"After each punt, I could come back and do something different after each punt and get confidence," he said of his game experience from a year ago. "And then bring that back to the practice field because that's a huge part of it, practicing the way you play."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.