It is never quite a given that Matt Darr will make it home on any given break from school.
A native of Bakersfield, Calif., Tennessee's senior punter once drove his truck cross-country --- approximately 2,200 miles --- as he returned from his childhood home to his college one.
Yet in December, with the Vols narrowly missing a bowl game, Darr was able to make it home. Only he didn't stay put upon his return to the West Coast.
Restless and motivated to head into his final year as a Vol with utmost preparation, the 6-foot-1, 219-pound punter hit the road from Bakersfield approximately 115 miles south to Los Angeles to work on his craft. As it turned out, Darr was able to work alongside one of coach Butch Jones' former specialists at Central Michigan.
"I was able, we had a long break in December, I was actually able to go home and went down to Los Angeles and worked with a guy, he's actually one of Coach Jones' old punters, and I've met him through camps as well, Brett Hartmann. He punted for the Texans for two seasons," Darr said. "Anyway, I picked up a few things from him. I always just try to stay within the punting and kicking network. It's kind of a niche group of guys that gets together and we like to play around with things and see what we can learn. So I just try to keep in that kind of stuff."
Hartmann, who suffered a brutal leg injury while punting for the Texans, nonetheless continues to train and work as a respected member of the specialists' unofficial fraternity --- having worked this past weekend in Texas with some current NFL specialists. He worked on a variety of aspects of Darr's game --- and also lent a unique perspective about performing under Jones' exacting standards.
"Coach Jones definitely pays attention to detail and likes to be involved with special teams and making calls," said Hartmann, who played for Jones during Jones' breakthrough head coaching stint at Central Michigan. "He coached the punt team at Central Michigan, too. I think that's kind of his speciality. I know more than a couple times I had to have some thick skin, and I told Matt not to get worked up about a bad punt, try to come back with another good one to make up for it. Butch loves to coach his special teams and punt units."
Darr, who did not play last year but has punted 56 times for a 38.4-yard average with a long of 53 in his Tennessee career, is arguably generating his top spring camp to date as a Vol. In the team's scrimmage before spring break, Darr boomed multiple punts beyond 50 yards and showed improve get-off time, a key component for a specialist who wants to start for Jones.
"I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunity," Darr said. "I have a good idea about the punt team with us that's been in the system and I'm confident in the work that they're doing. I feel really good about what coach Jones is doing with this team all around."
Hartmann, who still periodically communicates with Jones and has a closer relationship with Vols strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson, worked on punting-specific skills with Darr but also emphasized physical conditioning. The two did some training on an L.A.-area beach, working in sand to gain explosiveness and strength. They also tried to fine-tune some nuances of Darr's punting.
"He's definitely a big and strong kid. I'm tall, too. I think that definitely helps with us punters getting great hang-time. Matt definitely has the ability to get some high hang-time punts to allow the coverage team to get down there," Hartmann, who booted a career-best 65-yard punt at CMU and averaged more than 44 yards per punt in the NFL, explained. "I think he's just on the brink of being consistent every time. His drop moves a little bit and I think if he'll continue to work on the drop and have consistency in that, he can be really effective for Tennessee next year. We worked a lot on going directional, left and right, with punts because that's something that's important to coach Jones. The first couple of days he struggled a little bit, but the third day it was coming pretty easy for him. He's got a lot of upside. I first saw Matt a couple summers ago, and he's improved a lot since then. I think if he continues to work there's no reason he can't be very effective next season for Tennessee."
Darr, who said he takes "ownership" but also recognizes there's competition for the punting role, echoed Hartmann's comments on seeking consistency and also indicated he's gained motivation from the work last season of former teammate and All-SEC selection Michael Palardy.
"That's my main focus, is working on consistency. This spring has been well; I've been getting more consistent," Darr said. "I just need to carry that over into the season and have the success there. …
"I do talk to Mike; I've been trying to keep up with what he's doing to train for the NFL because I'm going to be there in a year. I was really fortunate to be able to see the things that he did this past season and kind of learn from Mike. And he's going through the process of getting into the NFL, which you know is a dream of mine, too. So I'm trying to keep in touch with him and do well."