KNOXVILLE – One indelible image from last Saturday’s 23-21 win over South Carolina will be kicker Michael Palardy knocking home the game-winning field goal and the team, as well as the fans, erupting in wild celebration.
But that was just the culmination of Palardy’s impressive effort in the game. The senior kicker/punter also averaged over 40 yards per punt, including one 64-yarder and six that were downed inside the 20, in addition to two touchbacks on kickoffs.
Discussing field position might seem a little mundane when compared to the last-second field goal or receiver Marquez North’s dramatic one-handed catch in the fourth quarter. But field position has been a huge part of the reason for UT’s improved play over the past two games.
“We've improved defensively because of [Palardy] and offensively we're now generating some more points because of field position,” said coach Butch Jones. “Field position in the game of football is everything and he's playing with a lot of confidence. So he's been a weapon for us in everything he's done in terms of kickoffs, punting the football and placekicking."
The difference can be seen on paper. South Carolina’s average starting field position was its own 20 on Saturday – UT’s best effort of the season in terms of how far it pinned back an opponent. Georgia’s average starting field position was its own 22.
Now compare that to Oregon, which averaged started on its own 28, and Florida, which began its drives on its own 35 on average against the Vols. That might seem like a relatively minor difference, but add that up throughout the course of multiple possessions and it begins to show part of why UT is improving.
For a team that is playing catch up in terms of talent against many opponents this year, the Vols have forced their last two opponents to convert one to two extra first downs than normal per drive. That can make the difference in winning and losing.
“When I am called in to punt I have to change field position,” said Palardy. “That is my job. I have to make the opposing offense's job harder and make the field longer. That also makes it easier on our defense. I have been going out with a lot more confidence this year.”
"It definitely gives us a lot of confidence," added safety Brian Randolph. "Palardy and the special teams pinned them inside the 20 a couple times and that really helps us out. It gives us a little boost when we head out there."
And though the numbers have improved, the Vols think they can do better. Despite his impressive numbers, Palardy thought he had a slight off day punting and thinks he can improve his ball placement to help the coverage teams out even more.
Jones sees room for improvement as well. Despite a nearly perfect day from the special teams, he couldn’t get over his kickoff coverage unit giving up a long return to close to midfield in the fourth quarter. It didn’t matter that a penalty negated the play, Jones knows those are the types of improvements the Vols must make this week to have a chance at No. 1 Alabama.
“We gave up the one big kickoff return, fortunately there was a penalty on the play – they were holding,” said Jones. “We have to take giant steps moving forward with this football team. So improvement, obviously, is critical as we continue to move forward.
"We haven't even come close to playing our best football game. Everyone has to take accountability in their performance, in their actions to get better this week."
• Out: TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, QB Nathan Peterman, WR Josh Smith
• Limited: TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, TE Brendan Downs, LG Alex Bullard
Smith (hamstring) went through some walk-through drills and then headed over to the injured-players area for the rest of the time. Bullard had his left ankle heavily wrapped and was a limited participant in practice. Quarterback Nathan Peterman (thumb) continues to have a smaller brace on his hand, but he still isn’t throwing in practice.
• It’s unclear if it’s injury related or perhaps the cooler temperatures, but quarterback Justin Worley was wearing gloves for the first time at practice this season. Worley banged his hand on a helmet during the South Carolina game, but both he and Jones have said his hand is fine.
• Linebacker Curt Maggitt is wearing No. 42 in practice to simulate Alabama outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard. Receiver Drae Bowles is wearing No. 22 to simulate Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones.
• Alabama-related music was played at practice to get the Vols ready for their trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend. Yea Alabama! – the official fight song for the Crimson Tide – and Sweet Home Alabama were among the selections.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga