In an ideal scenario for Tennessee this season, Michael Palardy would be handling kickoffs and field goals while redshirt freshman Matt Darr would be the starting punter.
A nagging hamstring injury, though, has prevented Darr from getting the most out of his punts this spring, which was displayed in a choppy effort during Saturday’s scrimmage. The injury even prevented him from punting at all at the end of Wednesday’s practice, thrusting Palardy into action.
That’s just fine for Palardy. His version of the ideal situation has him handling all three positions this season.
But the sophomore is fully aware why his coaches might want to pump the brakes on his three-tiered aspirations.
“Fatigue on my body in the long term down the stretch in the season. I think that’s the only reason why,” Palardy said. “Not that I’m not capable of it, just the fact that (coaches don’t) want me to get hurt. Doing all three I have more of a chance of getting hurt than if I didn’t.”
Palardy knows firsthand what a long season can do to a kicker. Through the second half of last year, Palardy, who handled kickoffs throughout his freshman season and filled in on field goals during Daniel Lincoln’s quadriceps injury, was kicking with a pulled groin.
“If you have a groin injury and you’re a kicker,” Palardy said, “that’s the worst injury you can possibly have.”
As a result, Palardy made life difficult for one of the country’s best kickoff return defenses. Palardy averaged 61 yards on his 45 kickoffs, sending three out of bounds for illegal procedure penalties and dropping only one for a touchback.
The Vols, who ranked ninth in the nation by allowing just 18.98 yards on kickoff returns, were one of just eight teams in the country to have one or fewer touchbacks last season.
“Balls were being caught at the 14-, 15-yard line outside the target area,” special teams coordinator Eric Russell said. “That’s a big emphasis for us this spring and in the future.
“I don’t know if we’ve got the guy that’s our kickoff guy. We’ll be out looking for the best possible guy to compete for the job.”
Palardy didn’t have those problems at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he put close to 98 percent of his kicks into the end zone.
Palardy said his groin is mostly healed and that a new workout program under new strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery will have him kicking longer — eventually. To help prevent reaggravating the injury, Palardy said he has only practiced kickoffs when coach Derek Dooley tells him to.
Palardy got his first opportunity to “let it rip” in Wednesday’s practice. Russell said he’d defer critiquing the performance until he reviewed the film.
“I’ve actually moved my steps back from the ball further so I have more momentum to the ball, brings a lot through my body weight through the ball more,” Palardy said. “I just have more explosiveness and it feels better.”
Though he’s certainly felt better, Darr said he still considers the punting job “his to lose.” Like Palardy, Darr said he’s also benefited from a new training regimen, which has made his 221-pound body more flexible and limber.
“Like a punter,” said Darr, who also throws shot put for the UT track and field team. “It’s really helped me. I’ve been hitting better balls this spring. It’s paying off.”
Darr struggled a bit Saturday, as he averaged 39.3 yards on his four attempts with a long of 47. Palardy, meanwhile, averaged 41 yards on his three punts.
Dooley said Darr didn’t have as polished of a kicking background as Palardy, which has given Darr much more to learn at this stage in his development.
“We’ve got to get him to catch a snap and get his footwork down before we see him on stage,” Dooley said. “He’s ready for the stage, and I’m kind of in the studio with him still.”
Even if Dooley still feels that way by the season opener, he has Palardy, who is more than willing to fill the void.
It just wouldn’t be ideal.
“It’d be a lot less stressful on him and his body if he was kickoffs and field goals and Matt could do punts,” Russell said. “There’s no doubt Michael is talented enough to. It’s if his body withstand the strain of a season.”
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble