By Steve Williams
When a punter or placekicker is a team’s most valuable player, that’s usually a tell-tale sign that it hasn’t been a banner season for the team.
It could mean there were too many failed third-down conversions, resulting in punting situations instead of first downs. In the case of a placekicker, it could mean a team had to settle for too many field goals in the red zone.
But it also could mean one player handled all of the kicking duties and was very good at it.
Michael Palardy has been that guy for Tennessee football in 2013 and is clearly the frontrunner for the Vols’ MVP award. The senior punter and placekicker also still has time to help UT have a winning season.
It must start with a victory over Vanderbilt this coming Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
Maybe Palardy could even win this one for former UT kicking coach George Cafego, God rest his soul. Nobody has ever hated Vandy more than Cafego, who was a great back in the Vols’ single-wing days of the late 1930s.
Tennessee has lost three straight games to drop to 4-6, since Palardy’s game-winning field goal lifted the Vols over No. 11 ranked South Carolina 23-21 on Oct. 19. UT will also have to prevail at Kentucky in the regular season finale on Nov. 30 to finish 6-6 and become eligible for its first bowl game since 2010.
Palardy, who is one of only seven players in major college football who handles all three phases of the kicking game – punts, kickoffs and field goal and extra point kicks – and the lone left-footed kicker in the group, has been performing at a super high level all season long.
It’s been the type of year Tennessee fans have been wanting to see from Palardy, who came out of St. Thomas High in Coral Springs, Fla., ranked as the No. 1 overall kicker by Scout.com. He struggled early in his career at UT to reach expectations and temporarily lost his placekicking job last season to a walk-on.
First-year Coach Butch Jones now calls him a weapon.
The 5-11, 185-pound Palardy already has been named one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award, which is presented annually to the naton’s top collegiate punter.
A preseason All-SEC third team punter selection, Palardy also has put himself in contention for All-America honors, particularly if voters look beyond his 44.6 yard average, which ranks 11th in the nation. Maybe even more impressive, he leads the nation with 26 punts (out of 52) landing inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and ranks second with 12 punts inside the 10.
Palardy has a current career punting average of 42.8, which is second best all time at UT, trailing only two-time All-American (1982-83) Jimmy Colquitt’s 43.9.
As a placekicker this season. Palardy has been successful on 13 of 15 field goal attempts and all 30 of his extra-point tries. His 75 percent career FG accuracy (36 of 48) has him in second place all time at UT, trailing only Alex Walls’ 77.9 percent (53 of 68) in 1999-2002.
Palardy’s current point total of 213 has him in 10th place overall and seventh among UT placekickers.
The Vols have had three first-team All-American placekickers – two-time honoree and barefooted booter Ricky Townsend (1972-73), John Becksvoort (1993) and Daniel Lincoln (2007).
In addition to Jimmy Colquitt, Tennessee’s three first-team All-American punters include Ron Widby (1966) and Dustin Colquitt (2003).
Making an oval ball go where you want it to go ain’t easy, but Palardy appears to have mastered the art of punting. His senior season has been full of memorable moments. He landed one punt at the 2-yard line against Western Kentucky in Game 2.
Palardy was honored as SEC Special Teams Player of the Week and also recognized by the Lou Groza Award folks after his winning kick ruined Steve Spurrier’s day on Oct. 19. He also had a 63-yard punt against the Gamecocks.
At Missouri, Palardy showed grit by performing through pain. He made a 51-yard field goal for the Vols’ only points and also averaged 42.7 yards on seven punts.
Palardy also has had to become a defender, particularly in the Auburn game when special teams’ coverage broke down. He saved two scores.
Palardy was 3 for 3 in field goals against Auburn and shared the credit with teammates.
“I feel like I am in a groove,” he said. “I think it helps when you are confident and by having a good line to block for you. When you have confidence in those around you, it helps with you as well.”
Palardy’s versatility should bode well for him as far as getting a future job in the NFL.
Right now, though, the 21-year-old communication studies major is focused on helping lead the Vols to a bowl game. He says that’s the goal.
“It starts with senior leadership,” said Palardy, after the loss to Auburn. “I think it is critical for us to go to a bowl game . . . The bye week will be good for us to assess the problems and fix mistakes. When Vanderbilt comes here, we will be ready to play some sound football.”