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January 26, 2011

Sharp, Vols trying to find middle ground

If there were a few more scholarships available and all things were equal, kicker Zach Sharp would be preparing to sign with Tennessee one week from today, and the Vols would be preparing to give Sharp a scholarship.

It's that simple. Though technically considered a non-active recruit, Sharp has heard from Tennessee's coaches several times in the recruiting process. They've let him know he could come in and compete to handle kickoffs, if not potentially other duties, should he choose to walk on in the Vols' program. They've seen tape of Sharp's booming kickoffs from high school, more than 80 percent of which sailed into the end zone for touchbacks. They know Sharp has, on several instances, drilled his kickoffs not just through the end zone but through the uprights from 70 yards away.

Alas, Tennessee's coaches also know they're in a numbers crunch right now with scholarships, and they signed two kickers --- Michael Palardy and Matt Darr a year ago. They also know they need look no further than their Music City Bowl loss to see the undeniable importance of consistent kicking and punting on special teams.

So where that leaves Sharp and the Vols right now is a bit unclear. The four-year letterwinner at powerful Maryville High School has talked with numerous programs and this week has spoken with UT head coach Derek Dooley. There's an opportunity, it seems, to compete for a scholarship if Sharp first walks on. There isn't, however, a guarantee of one a year from now, as other schools have told Sharp would be the case.

"I don't think anything came out of it. He's a lawyer. He knows how to state his case and show his side of it. We were trying to show why he should take a kicker and that it would hopefully be me," said Sharp, who recently visited on campus with special teams coordinator Eric Russell and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. "It's one of those things that it's hard to tell, and I don't know if they want me to walk-on or don't really have a scholarship available. I know they've offered a bunch of people, and I know they've said I would have a chance to compete right away."

The Vols' coaches, of course, don't have to settle for Sharp's gaudy prep statistics --- he's booted a 50-yard field goal in a game, only missed three PATs since he began kicking in middle school and blasted all those aforementioned kickoffs into the end zone --- that made Sharp Tennessee's Mr. Football for kickers because they've seen him perform first-hand. Sharp won the long-distance field goal competition this past summer at UT's highly-competitive kicking camp, never missing a kick even as Dooley attempted to tighten the pressure screws on Sharp in mock-game situations. So the Vols believe Sharp could potentially help them this year. How much so? Enough that they talk to him about walking on this year and not "gray-shirting" or sitting out a season before joining the squad.

"Yeah, They've not really talked about a 'grayshirt' so much, but they say we need you next year to kick off," Sharp said. "So I was kind of like, 'Well do you have a scholarship then if you need me next year?' Think about the average scholarship for a two- or three-star prospect. He may never start, may never get serious time on the field. Whereas they want me to come on next year as a freshman and start on kickoffs and it would probably be something I'd do all four years. I think when the kicker is on the field, he's probably more important than even the quarterback on offense sometimes because he's doing the big majority of that play, as punter or kicker, to determine whether or not it's a success.

"We didn't really talk about the season that much, but when I came in a few weeks ago I talked to coach Chaney and coach Russell. I had thought I might get to talk to coach Dooley then, but he wasn't available. We talked to them. And told told me why we need you to come walk on because [there were kicking struggles last season]. UT is obviously, if it was a level playing field, if I had offers from every college known to man, I would probably go to UT. If I had no offers and was going to walk-on somewhere, I would walk on at UT. But with offers elsewhere, that kind of changes things."

That doesn't mean things are completely dead between Sharp and the Vols. The articulate and well-spoken kicker at least made a convincing enough argument for Dooley that the UT coach was going to further examine the situation.

"The thing that makes it maybe not as attractive as a full offer in other places is that they really didn't guarantee anything. They said if I win the starting job at field goal, extra point or kickoff, you can earn a spot (scholarship). It's just so vague," said Sharp, who said he's kicked a 68-yard field goal with the wind and a 66-yarder without the wind in practice at MHS. "Palardy may be a lot better next year, but I know it was frustrating last year because dad would tell me my kickoff average was 70 yards last night and we'd see his average was 60 yards. You never know what could happen. I could get hurt or he could be a lot better all of a sudden. It's just not a sure thing."


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