AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's Michael Palardy is one of the nation's busiest special-teams performers.
Lately, he also has been among the best.
Palardy is part of a small group of players working triple duty as the main field-goal kicker, klckoff specialist and punter for their respective schools. Palardy has welcomed the heavy workload while emerging as one of Tennessee's most valuable players.
His 19-yard field goal Saturday as time expired in Tennessee's 23-21 victory over South Carolina continued the best season of this senior's career. The loss dropped South Carolina from 11th to 20th in the Top 25.
"I'm definitely a lot more confident kicker and punter than I (had) been these last few years," Palardy said.
Palardy said he received over 50 congratulatory text messages after the game. It's a much different reaction than Palardy received early in his career, when he struggled to live up to forecasts that rated him as one of the nation's top kicking prospects in his recruiting class. Early last season, he temporarily lost the kicking job to walk-on Derrick Brodus.
"I've appreciated every ounce of criticism I've received over the past couple of years because that's kind of fueled me to be successful this year," Palardy said.
Palardy is 8 of 10 on field-goal attempts this season. One of the misses was a bit of a fluke, as a 52-yard attempt against South Alabama left the ground and hit holder Tyler Drummer's left hand before he could pull it away.
Palardy also averages 44.5 yards per punt to rank 13th nationally. He landed six of his eight punts Saturday inside South Carolina's 20-yard line, which helped make Palardy the Southeastern Conference special teams player of the week.
The only other Football Bowl Subdivision players who have the majority of their teams' field-goal attempts, kickoffs and punts this season are Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza, Boston College's Nate Freese, Houston's Richie Leone, Louisiana Monroe's Justin Manton, Kent State's Anthony Melchiori and Idaho's Austin Rehkow.
"We've improved defensively because of him," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Offensively, we're now generating some more points because of field position. Field position in the game of football is everything, and he's playing with a lot of confidence. He's been a weapon for us in everything he's done in terms of kickoffs, punting the football and placekicking."
Palardy received advice from NFL punters and former Tennessee players Britton Colquitt and Dustin Colquitt before the season. Jones got Palardy accustomed to kicking under pressure by creating uncomfortable situations for him.
At various points in practices, Jones will yell "Game-winning field goal!" and have Palardy try making a kick in that type of situation. During spring practice, players occasionally would gather around him and scream as he kicked.
Coach Jones "will consistently be in your ear," Palardy said. "He is always yelling at me, but it isn't because he is angry but to look out for the best of us. I like to think of myself as having thick skin with all of the criticism I have taken over the past couple of years."
Palardy needs another big game Saturday for Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC) to have any chance at top-ranked Alabama, a 28-point favorite. Alabama (7-0, 4-0) has the SEC's top punt returner in Christion Jones and an excellent special-teams duo in kicker Cade Foster and punter Cody Mandell.
Alabama beat Tennessee 12-10 during its 2009 national championship season only after Terrence Cody blocked a 44-yard field-goal attempt by the Vols' Daniel Lincoln as time expired.
"I can't remember if I was standing on the bench or something, trying to see it, and couldn't see it because I was stuck all the way in the back," Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron said. "Then I heard everyone cheer and thought something must have gone right and then watched the replay."
If Saturday's game also comes down to a kick on the final play, Palardy will be ready.
"I visualize throughout the entire week, even if I'm in practice, about kicking a game-winning field goal, no matter if it's an extra point or if it's a 45-yard field goal, whatever it may be," Palardy said. "The biggest thing with me is maintaining clear focus and maintaining composure and not letting my adrenaline or nerves get the best of me."
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