KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones, the Tennessee head coach, ordered his football team to make two lines on the Neyland Stadium field, each going down along the hash marks to create a driving range. It was spring practice and the new coach wanted to see what kind of courage his kickers had, especially the senior Michael Palardy. The kickers were told to attempt field goals from the 40-yard line in the middle of a maelstrom created by teammates.
Jones told his players to scream as loud as they could, wave towels, and arms, and make some calamity for the kickers as they approached their kicks. Those lines, on either side of the kickers, could have been viewed a gauntlet, or perhaps a firing squad for Palardy. He had been the No. 1 kicker in the country coming out of high school, recruited by Alabama, Miami, Stanford, among others, but less than a month into his junior year at Tennessee he had lost his every-kick role under former head coach Derek Dooley.
Is this how you instill confidence in a kicker who has wobbled during his career? Palardy was ready to kick and players squirted water from bottles at him. They screamed some yo-mama-wears-army-boots things at him. Perhaps he should have been handed a blindfold, cigarette, and asked if there were any last words.
With players hollering, and parents watching, some of whom were probably told by their sons “Our kicker was over-rated,” Palardy sent a screamer through the uprights.
“Back it up,” Jones barked.
The kickers lined up at the 45 now. The teammates went to making noise. Jones walked up to Palardy, stuck his finger inside the ear hole of his helmet, and pulled Palardy closer to him and demanded, “Make this kick.”
Palardy thumped another kick through the uprights.
Well, this is how you instill confidence in a kicker who has wobbled.
“Butch understood that Michael wanted to be challenged in a positive way,” said Craig Palardy, the kicker’s dad. “He told Michael when he got there, ‘I know your background, I know what you can do, I expect the best out of you and for you to be consistent’.
“Butch Jones has been phenomenal for Michael.”
On Oct. 19, in front of 95,736 in Neyland Stadium and a national television audience, Palardy kicked a 19-yard field goal with no time remaining to beat No. 11 South Carolina, 23-21. The kick was an extra point in distance, but it was much, much further in re-shaping a career.
Palardy had missed five extra points during his career and he just didn’t have bad kicks, he said, he had bad days. Dooley, who was on his way to being fired, switched kickers two games into the 2012 season, benching Palardy for a walk-on kicker because of “some technical things.”
This season, under Jones, the kicking job is Palardy’s, every single, last kick. He is one of just seven kickers in the Football Bowl Subdivision to do all three jobs, kickoff, punts, and placekicks. He is the only left-footed kicker in the country doing all three, which is a plus when it comes to punting because return men tend to bobble the lefty’s punt, which has a different spin than they are used to seeing.
Jones gave his kicker a mental makeover in the spring. Palardy was never awful under Dooley, but he was missing something: consistency. Jones dove right in and never let his kicker stew in a mental pot by himself. The Tennessee coach would get as close as he could to that ear hole in the side of Palardy’s helmet and lay himself all over Palardy’s psyche. The kicker, plagued by three years of inconsistency, was never going to be in that cold moment again, that moment right before he strikes the ball with his left foot where he was wishing for good results.
“You can do this,” Jones would bark through that hole in the helmet.
Jones, who is also the Tennessee special teams coach, would say it every day in practice.
“You can do this.”
In practice, Jones would suddenly give orders for a game-winning field goal. Instead of having a chip on his shoulder for listening to three years of abuse for not living up to his recruiting hype as the best high school kicker in America out of Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas, Palardy would have Jones on his shoulder.
“I don’t think there was any question whether I had the talent to do it,” Palardy said. “There were times the last three years where I would have a successful game, but it was never a steady string. You can have a bad kick, but you can’t have a bad day. I had some bad days, I was up and down and up and down, all over the place. It was a matter of doing it over and over.
“Every day in practice, Coach Jones is in my ear, making sure I am consistent with everything I do. He does his best to put a lot of pressure on me and see how I will overcome it. Coach Jones preaches to us about being able to not just be physically prepared, but mentally prepared. You have to be dialed in. Being a kicker is very mental.”
Palardy has made 13 of 15 field goals this season, including three of three in a 55-23 loss to Auburn last Saturday. He routinely puts punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line (26, which is the high in FBS). In the Vols’ biggest win of the season, Palardy not only kicked the game-winning field goal against the Gamecocks, he averaged 51.6 yards per punt and six times he made South Carolina start drives back up inside its 20-yard line.
Palardy is fifth in the SEC in punting average (44.6 yards), but he is far out in front of other punters with kicks inside the 20 and 10-yard lines.
Here is a snapshot of Palardy’s considerable talent. After Auburn’s Chris Davis ran a punt back 85 yards for a touchdown, which revealed just how much faster the Tigers were than the Vols, Palardy’s next punt was a 50-yarder pinned against a sideline. There was no escape for the Auburn return man with that punt, Palardy made sure of that.
The Vols’ special teams were a disaster against Auburn and several times Palardy found himself in those high-leverage situations where he was the last defender. He was a soccer player, once upon a time, so Palardy knows how to run. He has 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash and he had to make several tackles to prevent returns for touchdowns.
It has not been a smooth ride for Palardy at Tennessee. He was recruited by former head coach Lane Kiffin and assistant Eddie Gran, but Kiffin left for Southern California before Palardy ever suited up in orange. He was a backup to veterans as a freshman, then a starter as a sophomore, but he also had some mechanical issues he had to clean up before his powerful leg could reach its potential.
“All the criticism I’ve gotten, I embraced it coming into this season,” Palardy said. “When I was a freshman, people would say he’s a freshman, everyone makes mistakes. Sophomore year it was my job, but I was still young and I kind of used that as an excuse. Last year, when I was a junior, there were no excuses and that was a low point. I had some ups and downs.
“This year I have come to the realization this is my job, I have to be consistent. The fans of Tennessee and everyone who has played on this field, deserved something better from me.”