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September 2, 2011The difference is mere tenths or hundredths of a second, but that's where Tennessee punter Matt Darr sees his biggest strides as he prepares for his collegiate debut Saturday against Montana.
A redshirt freshman and former U.S. Army All-American, Darr now is more regularly hitting the coaches' target time --- 2.2 seconds to get a punt away ---- and gaining consistency thanks to some tweaks to his form.
"Consistency, definitely so. My time has come down since we started camp as well," said the 6-foot-1, 221-pound Darr of his camp progress. "That was huge for me. As long as we stay consistent and get the punts off, things should go well.
"My slower time coming into camp was right around 2.3, 2.5 but I've been just kind of able to shorten my steps, and my hand work has gotten a little bit quicker so that's definitely helped."
What helps Darr, who takes over punting duties following the graduation of Chad Cunningham, more than anything is focusing on just punting for a second-straight year. The Bakersfield, Calif., native owns high school touchdowns on offense and defense, where he played tight end and linebacker, respectively, in addition to his punting duties.
"My junior year I played both linebacker and tight end" on his Frontier High School squad, Darr said. "My senior year I just played linebacker, Sam 'backer. Actually, my junior year I got a pick six. I was kind of playing off the edge and I read the running back kind of a swing and I read it, picked it and ran it back like 48 yards. My senior year I picked off Cody Kessler, who's the second-string quarterback a Southern Cal right now, I picked off Kessler and ran it back down to the 5. He ended up catching me; he's a hell of an athlete."
Tennessee special teams coach Eric Russell sees in Darr an earnest desire to improve daily.
"What I've seen from Matt is a conscious effort to shorten up, quicken up and be more consistent. He's still a work-in-progress. But that's the beauty of Matt," Russell said. "He's working and he knows what he's got to get to. It's just getting caught up and repping, repping, repping. He'll get there because he's conscientious about it."
Darr continues to refine an "Aussie" style kick that he says the Vols hope to use to pin opponents against their goal line, and he sees the key as focusing and simply executing kicks.
"For sky situations, planning on hitting the Aussie which I feel comfortable with," said Darr, whose parents are making the trip in from California. "I know it just takes almost all of the equation of getting a touchback out of it because you just can't really bomb it through the end zone like you can a regular punt. I'm comfortable with it and that's what we're going to plan on going into the year.
"It's just kind of having a clear mind and not getting caught up in all the people watching. It's just me punting the ball. It's basically just me and (deep snapper) Nick (Guess). Nick's throwing the ball to me and I'm kicking it. That's just all that's got to be in my mind at the time."