New head football coach Butch Jones knew something was missing from Tennessee's place-kicking workouts this spring but he couldn't quite put his finger on it ... until this week.
When Michael Palardy lined up for a field-goal attempt during Tuesday's practice at the Neyland-Thompson indoor complex, Jones tried to distract him by poking a finger through the ear hole of the senior kicker's helmet.
Palardy was neither distracted nor surprised. Jones and staff have pulled out all of the stops in trying to rattle the veteran kicker this spring.
First, Jones allows teammates to crowd Palardy to the point that he can smell their breath.
"They're kind of tight," the kicker conceded. "It kind of scares me sometimes because I watch it on film and I feel like my hand is going to hit someone's helmet and break a finger."
Increasing the pressure is the fact each kick scores a point for either the offense or the defense. That way half of the Vols are cheering Palardy and the other half are jeering him on each attempt. The kicker finds this adds drama.
"Absolutely," he said. "I'll kick for the offense one time, then for the defense. We'll go back and forth. It's positive pressure. My teammates support me, make or miss, so it's been really good."
Crowding the kicker and jeering him are two of the tamer distractions Jones and his minions employ in practice, however. Sometimes the head man addresses Palardy as Derrick Brodus or George Bullock, his kicking competitors.
"He'll say he forgot my name," Palardy recalled with a chuckle.
Jones occasionally amps up the distraction level by slapping Palardy's helmet just before the ball is snapped. The head man encourages his players and assistants to add to the chaos.
"They (teammates) are spraying water on me," Palardy said. "And coaches are throwing hats at me."
Given all of the above, the senior kicker wasn't shocked when Jones poked a finger into Palardy's helmet during today's workout. He wasn't affected by it, either.
"No," he said. "It's fun. It's good."
Interestingly enough, Palardy says none of the creative methods designed to destroy his focus this spring have worked.
"Actually, I've kicked the best I have since I've been here," he said. "I feel real confident. I guess maybe that comes with age and experience. Coach Jones has really helped me with distractions."
|Michael Palardy appears to have the inside track on securing the starting kicker job for his final season on The Hill.|
Asked if he could have handled such extreme distractions as a mere freshman, Palardy paused thoughtfully before answering.
"Probably not, to be honest with you," he said. "I think I've made huge strides this offseason in terms of confidence."
One reason Palardy has stronger confidence is that he has a stronger body. That's a credit to new conditioning coach Dave Lawson.
"Coach Lawson has done an awesome job with the strength program," Palardy said. "I'm a lot stronger than I ever have been. Everything's been going really well."
Palardy's chief problem in previous seasons was a lack of elevation on his kicks. Based on Saturday's scrimmage, he seems to be getting the ball up quicker this spring.
"Oh, yeah. Absolutely," he said. "I think a lot of that has come with Coach Lawson's program. I really focus on stretching, which has been a big emphasis for me this offseason — maintaining flexibility but building strength."
After making 75 percent (9 for 12) of his field-goal attempts last fall, Palardy is hitting 69.7 percent (23 for 33) for his career as a Vol. He has made a few minor adjustments in his kicking stroke this spring that he believes will make him more accurate in the season ahead.
"I've changed up a couple of things on field goals," he said. "Nothing major. I don't want to mess with anything but technique work in the offseason has definitely impacted that (height on kicks) a little bit."
Basically, Palardy has shortened his approach and his leg swing.
"I'm a little shorter to the ball," he said. "That gives me a little less room for error. I feel like I've made a lot better contact on the ball, and contact is what makes the ball go far and high. That's been my main focus — keeping everything compact and tight."
So far this spring, that strategy seems to be working. He says he hadn't missed a field goal attempt all spring until Saturday's scrimmage, when heavy winds wreaked havoc on kicks, punts and long passes.
"I've never felt anything like that before," Palardy said, shaking his head emphatically. "I think my first couple of misses were Saturday going into the wind. A 25-mile-an-hour wind ... that's pretty tough."
Other than Saturday's wind-blown misfires, Palardy believes he has been perfect on practice field goals all spring.
"I think those were maybe the only couple I've missed in practice," he said. "I know that almost every practice when we do field goals I've made five or six. I've been very, very consistent."
Even with the coach's finger in the ear hole of his helmet.
Have a look at what Palardy said to the media after practice this week:
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