KNOXVILLE — Chad Cunningham has no hesitations about calling it “sporadic.”
He admits that few words could better describe his punting during his first two years at Tennessee.
Cunningham never forgot how to punt. The strength that helped him set Dawsonville (Ga.) High School’s back squat record never vanished. In fact, his sturdy, 6-foot-3 frame now holds 205 pounds.
Nerves weren’t the issue, either. The problem was his “op” time — which starts at the snap and ends when a punter’s foot meets the ball. Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer demands that his punter have an op time under two seconds.
“And mine took a little longer,” Cunningham said.
Nothing else matters if a punt is blocked, and fast, athletic opponents darting off the corner makes low op time a priority.
“So that’s what I worked on the most,” Cunningham said.
He was supposed to have one more year as a backup to Ray Guy Award candidate Britton Colquitt, but Colquitt was suspended for this season’s first five games following a DUI arrest — the latest of his several alcohol-related problems.
“I still work hard, even if I am the No. 2 guy,” Cunningham said. “But I’ve definitely put it on my mind. I’ve dreamed about it. I keep rolling it back and back through my mind, just getting out there on the field.
“I’ve worked really hard this offseason on my consistency, and I feel like I’m ready now.”
A golfer changing his swing can often take a lengthy adjustment, and punting is no different. Cunningham frustrated Fulmer greatly his first two seasons. During one memorable practice, Fulmer yanked him and had linebacker Ryan Karl punt with the second team.
Daniel Lincoln dealt with similar head games from Fulmer two seasons ago. Lincoln said he often felt embarrassed, but he understood Fulmer’s plan last season, when he became an All-America kicker as a redshirt freshman.
“If you can’t deal with one guy giving you a hard time, you’re not going to do well with 90,000 fans screaming at you,” Lincoln said last year.
Cunningham seems to understand that, too.
“He’s a big motivator,” Cunningham said of Fulmer. “He would put people in there that don’t even punt, just to fire me up. I’m glad that he does that. It makes me stronger, and it makes me see the opportunity that I have, and I don’t want to mess it up.”
Could Cunningham be at the dawn of a Lincoln-like turn around? He’s boomed kicks since camp started last week, and he averaged a solid 42 yards on 10 punts in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I’m really proud of Chad,” Fulmer said. “His fundamentals and his timing are much better than they have been. His hang time and direction and all of that stuff has been real consistent.”
Cunningham’s first big test comes on Labor Day, when the Vols open their season with an 8 p.m. nationally televised game at UCLA. The last time Fulmer brought a new starting punter to a season opener in Pasadena was 1997 — when David Leaverton shanked several punts and turned his head while one sailed in for a safety, helping the Bruins nearly overcome a 21-point, third-quarter deficit.
“David Leaverton kept punting toward his head coach — short and off to the right — and that helped shrink a once-commanding Tennessee lead,” the New York Times’ Tom Friend wrote that day. “The people in the front row of the Rose Bowl needed hard hats, and, by the game’s end, the UCLA Bruins were 20 yards from a go-ahead touchdown.”
Fulmer was at a loss for thoughts — but not words — on that 90-degree day.
“I talked to the kid all I could,” Fulmer told the Times. “I’ve hugged his neck; I’ve patted him on the rear; I’ve cussed at him. I’ve run the gamut.’’
Needless to say, Cunningham hopes to avoid Leaverton’s fate — though he wouldn’t mind having a Leaverton-like career.
“It’s been tough, but I’ve found my rhythm being fast now, and that’s where I need to be,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been pretty sporadic my first year or so here, but I feel like I’ve gotten in a good rhythm. I feel like I’m really consistent now, and I’m going to go out there and show the fans and coaches of this university than I can be their punter.”