The life of a long-snapper is one that no youth football player grows up dreaming about. Unless you’re a Tennessee native who grew up loving the Vols. Then, you do anything you can to don the orange and white in Neyland Stadium.
Riley Lovingood has been around Tennessee’s football program from an early age. His father, Jeff, served as the Vols’ chaplain under Phillip Fulmer while his uncle served as a student manager. Having been around Tennessee at its peak in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the redshirt-junior is focused on getting the Vols back to the physically superior team it once was.
He’s doing so by shining in his role on and off the field, though he’s not a star skill-player.
“I know no one is coming to Neyland Stadium to watch me, but I know that if I can help my team out and at the end of the day we win, I know that’s the role in my life because I’m getting to serve my team,” Lovingood said. “The life of a long-snapper is not a glorious one. You know what you sign up for and you’re not going to get your name known.
“But that’s kind of how I live my life. I knew when I came in, I was going to be a role player and I’m here to serve the team. The way I live my life is through Galatians 5:13. I’m here to serve people on and off the field. I’m here to serve and so that’s my job as a long-snapper, that I get to serve this team.”
Off the field, Lovingood serves his team by leading in the community and in the classroom. The marketing major has been recognized in the classroom several times, as he was named to the 2015-16 SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll and the 2016 and 2017 SEC Academic Honor Roll.
On the field, he serves as the leader of the special teams’ unit, a role that is vital following the graduations of Trevor Daniel and Aaron Medley. While the winner of the kicking and punting competition will have big shoes to fill, Lovingood is focused on doing his job to the best of his ability.
“Every day. Every practice. Every meeting,” Lovingood responded when asked about how much Jeremy Pruitt brings up competition. “He wants competition because competition makes the whole team better. If you have guys competing four-and-five deep at each position, then you’ll have the best players starting on Saturdays.”
The emphasis on competition has already been noticeable in practice. Many college coaches divvy out almost all of the reps to the first team and second team. Pruitt believes that if you’re going to develop depth and young talent, everyone must receive reps.
“Whether you’re first team, second team, third team or fourth team, Coach Pruitt wants everybody to get reps,” Lovingood stated. “That way he knows each player is getting the opportunity to play.”
Pruitt’s philosophy has created quite the competition at kicker, punter, and long-snapper.
While Tennessee added big-time grad-transfers in Keller Chryst, Madre London and Brandon Kennedy, they also added Ryan Tice, a walk-on kicker from Michigan who has two years of eligibility remaining. Tice did not appear in any games last season, but was 10-for-10 on extra point attempts during the 2016 season. He kicked off three times and missed his lone field-goal attempt.
Tice is in the midst of competing with sophomore Brent Cimaglia for the starting kicker job. Cimaglia was 8-for-13 on his field goal attempts last season, with a long of 51-yards coming against Florida.
“They’re (Tice and Cimaglia) both doing really well, and taking the job seriously every day,” Lovingood said about the competition at place-kicker. “Kicking is such a technique position, and they’re having to break down a lot and they’re really doing well.”
At punter, two freshmen are battling it out to replace one of the greatest punters in program history.
Joe Doyle, a redshirt-freshman from nearby Farragut High School, did not appear in any games last season, but he was the only punter selected for both the Army and Under Armour All-American games as a recruit in 2017. True freshman Paxton Brooks arrives as the No. 2 punter in the 2018 recruiting class according to Kohl’s Professional Camps.
“The way Joe (Doyle) and Paxton (Brooks) are coming at it each day, they’re really taking their craft seriously, watching film, breaking down their punt, because they know they have big shoes to fill,” Lovingood said. “They’re up for the challenge and I’m really excited to see them both out there competing for it every day.”
Doyle may have a leg-up on Brooks because he’s been on campus a year longer, but both have been in Pruitt’s program the same amount of time. Brooks arrived in December from West Columbia, South Carolina as an early enrollee. Arriving early has allowed Brooks to adjust to the speed of the college game.
“It’s actually a really big deal for a punter to come in early,” Lovingood said of Brooks. “In high school you can take a little longer on your punts because you’re not in a big rush. But the speed and the tempo of what we ask from our punters is big and Paxton came in and learned really fast. He was really willing to adapt to our styles and it’s really helped him a lot. He’s done really well.”
For Lovingood, his competition is Elijah Medford, a redshirt-senior. Last season, Medford was responsible for the short, long-snaps while Lovingood was responsible for the long, long-snaps. The pair don’t know if they’ll split long-snapping responsibilities under Pruitt, they’re just focused on doing their job to the best of their ability.
“He’s always keeping me honest and we’re always looking at each other,” Lovingood said of Medford. “He’s doing really well. It’s always good to have someone there to keep you on the edge.”
Lovingood laughs when he explains to people that he throws a ball through his legs for a living, but it’s a role he’s comfortable in as he continues to serve his team. He understands that he’s a small part of a special program and right now, he’s focused on serving his University by getting it back to where it once was.
“We want to physically dominate each team we play,” Lovingood said. “We want our team to be physically superior.”