Tennessee football practice on Oct. 9, 2012
Tennessee players don't fear the cowbell
To Tennessee punter Matt Darr, a fair catch is a victory.
So when he looks at Tennessee's special teams statistics, he's impressed by the way Vols have limited opponents to 2.8 yards per return. But he's even more pleased that about 75 percent of the Vols' punts haven't been returned at all.
"If you can eliminate a return, that's a win right there," Darr said. "As long as you're getting it far enough."
For all the hand-wringing about Tennessee's special teams woes — four missed extra points, a revolving door at kicker, lack of an explosive return game — the kickoff and punt coverage teams have been exceedingly good.
As the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) prepare to play at No. 19 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.), they have allowed only 14 yards on five punt returns all year. Opponents are averaging only 19 yards per kickoff return. The longest (43 yards) came in the opening game against North Carolina State.
"Knock on wood, we've been covering kicks really good," said Tennes
see coach Derek Dooley. "The specialists are doing better. They really are. They're not where they need to be, they're not what they can be, but they're doing better ... This team is pretty good on (special) teams."
For Darr, it all starts with hang time. While fans might fixate on distance, he is just as worried about the length of time the ball stays in the air.
"You don't want to outkick your coverage. That's a big part of it. Hang (time) is huge," Darr said. "If you don't get a fair catch when you have good hang, then they're going to be slaughtered right when they get the ball."
Linebacker Channing Fugate and other special teams mavens are in charge of doing the slaughtering when needed, but they've had few chances this year.
"We take pride in it," Fugate said. "If they fair-catch it, they don't get a chance to return it. They can do that every time."
Tennessee is still roughly in the middle of the pack nationally with a net punting average of 37.3 yards, although those numbers can be skewed by situational punts. But Darr and his coaches relentlessly monitor distance and height, striving for the perfect balance.
Punts are graded on a 100-point scale weighed between the two factors. A punt at or near 100 is about 45 yards with a hang time of 4.5 seconds, Darr said.
A 50-yard punt might look more impressive, but it also must stay in the air long enough to require a fair catch or allow the coverage team to get in position.
"I just have to keep doing my job and give them a good punt to work with," Darr said.
There's been only one major gaffe on the punt team this year, and it came in the second half of Tennessee's loss to Georgia. Byron Moore missed a block and Georgia's Marc Deas smacked the ball off Darr's foot. The block gave the Bulldogs the ball on Tennessee's 35 and led to an important touchdown.
"That was a huge blow for us," Darr said. "All we can do is try to fix those mistakes and not let it happen again."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.