A timeshare between the Tennessee track and football teams is nothing new.
The Vols have long had defensive backs who took off the pads to compete as sprinters.
Or wide receivers who were accomplished jumpers.
Or beefy linemen moonlighting with a shot put or discus.
But a punter? Well, Matt Darr certainly presented something a bit different for J.J. Clark and the Vols when he reported for duty during the indoor season.
“I’ve not had a punter,” the UT director of track and field said. “I think the punter is a little different scenario.
“But he’s still a football guy, and I think those guys came to Tennessee to be winners. I believe our football team wants to win, and we want to win. We’ve accomplished on the track side NCAA championships and SEC championships, and I believe that’s what these youngsters want to do. The punter is a little different deal, though.”
The pairing appears even more unlikely on the surface when the typically non-contact football position is coupled with Darr’s gig throwing the shot put for the track team, an event generally a domain for oversized, heavy-lifters. On the flip side, Darr doesn’t appear to exactly fit the mold as a punter, either, looking much more like the linebacker he also was in high school at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds.
But the Vols freshman is far from a novelty act, regardless of the sport.
Before redshirting last fall behind senior Chad Cunningham, Darr was recruited as the top-ranked player at his position in the nation and likely will be taking over the role full-time this spring. And after finally deciding to give college track a try once the football season ended in December, Darr also has emerged as a possible threat to score for UT in the shot put in the SEC Indoor championships, which start today in Fayetteville, Ark.
“It is kind of an odd combination,” Darr said. “I always kind of dealt with that through high school, dealing with recruiting and excelling in track. But I just felt, I picked up track in seventh and eighth grade and the explosion I got through the lifting and the training through track I think is what really gave me an edge when I started kicking and punting.
“I just had so much more pop and power in the ball than a lot of guys, and I think a lot of it was because of the track training.”
The trick for Darr and other two-sport athletes like wide receiver Justin Hunter is finding a balance between the workouts for track and football, a juggling act that becomes more difficult once spring practice starts for the Vols in March.
Football clearly will be the top priority for Darr with the opportunity for playing time dangling in front of him, both as a punter and perhaps as a kickoff specialist depending on how he fares in competition with rising sophomore Michael Palardy. But when Darr is available, it turns out the track team has a use for punters after all.
“I didn’t want to do anything or make a decision before football season was over,” Darr said. “I knew I was redshirting, but I also wanted to just focus on football and get my mind right for what the season is going to be like when I’m actually playing. So I really had no intentions of doing track. I just felt that football training would conflict with the track conditioning and that they just wouldn’t complement each other. But it’s worked out really well so far.
“And I’ve always had the size. I wasn’t just a specialty kicker/punter in high school.”
Darr obviously hasn’t limited himself in college, either.