KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Members of the Sunseri family will be on opposite sidelines at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, but as Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said on Wednesday, the matchup needs to be professional, not personal.
A noted family man, Sunseri admits that has been a difficult distinction to make this week as he has helped the Vols prepare to face No. 1 Alabama and his son Vinnie, a sophomore safety for the Crimson Tide.
“It has been very hard this whole week, especially for both of us,” Sunseri said. “[Vinnie] has done a great job in preparation, everything he has done all year. Emotionally for the family it has been really, really tough. I didn’t think it would be this hard, I didn’t imagine it would be this hard but it is very tough. But we are both going to be professionals about it, we are going to do what we have to do and go out there and play our best football.”
Just because UT and Alabama are playing this week doesn’t mean the communication between father and son has stopped, although both have been careful to avoid talking strategy.
“It is more about missing each other and seeing each other,” Sunseri said. “The family is extremely close. When we talk it is more about his technique and how he is playing, asking how I am doing. It has nothing to do with the game itself. It has to do with making sure he is feeling good, making sure he is healthy, making sure that I am feeling good and making sure I am healthy. That is basically what the conversations have been. It is going to be hard on Saturday night when that kid walks on the field.”
Saturday will not mark Sunseri’s son’s first trip to Knoxville, however, as both were fortunate enough to have the same weekend off earlier this month. During the short break, Vinnie surprised his father, mother and sister Ashlyn – a freshman on the Tennessee volleyball team - with a visit.
“It was great because it was chance for me to bond,” Sunseri said. “I had a chance to sit down and break bread with him, laugh and just watch TV together and be around each other. You guys don’t know how hard it is when you are a family that had to move from Pittsburgh, left its immediate family and you have taken these kids to seven different areas. Every week, every day it is just you and your kids. It was tough but it was fantastic. It was great to be with him, it was great to see him, it was great to see his smile. He is competitive, spirited guy.”
As hard as it will be for Sal Sunseri to play against his youngest son, he is just happy it isn’t his oldest, Tino, a senior quarterback at Pittsburgh.
“That is probably the greatest thing is that I have nothing to do with scheming against Vinnie,” Sunseri said. “That would be extremely tough and I would have to make a decision about that.”
In addition to the family dynamic, Sunseri is fully aware of the challenge he has in getting the Tennessee defense prepared to face the Alabama offense.
“Offensively, they are a very good football team,” Sunseri said. “They are a team that runs the football so you better stop the run. They are very big upfront, they are very strong. Their running backs are extremely explosive. You have to be a sound defense. They play extremely hard. In the play action game, because of so many runs they try to beat you over the top. They have a great football team. There is a reason they are number one in the country. I was down there for the last three years and they are a very, very good football team.’
The Vols know that they have the ability to slow down the high-powered Alabama attack, but understand that it will require a consistent, coordinated effort by all 11 players on the field for 60 minutes on Saturday.
“You look at the kids, you see their highs and you see their lows, you see the consistency,” Sunseri said. “[We have to] understand that we have to be more consistent. There are times we are out there and we are playing darn good football and there are other times when we make a mistake or we reach or we miss a tackle. It is very difficult. We need to keep their confidence going and keep playing together as a team and being efficient on defense.”
CONTROLLING WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
In his weekly SEC teleconference, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley made it clear that the Vols have a tall task at hand with the top-ranked team in America coming to Neyland Stadium. It is an exciting opportunity, but Dooley is trying to keep his squad level when it comes to its preparation.
"I think every team that plays Alabama gets geeked up because they have become the standard of college football," said Dooley. "The important thing is keeping a level of belief and a level of mental and physical stamina during the course of four quarters because what makes them so good is that they will try and wipe out that belief that every team has when they play them about how physical they can play, the system they play and the disciplines.
"The biggest thing that we have to do is try to control what we can control and that is our psyche, our preparation and our effort for four quarters.”
Dooley continues to coach practice from a golf cart while he rehabs from hip surgery and, while his location for Saturday's game is still undetermined, he prefers to be on the sidelines.
"I want to and I am going to do everything that I can to be there (on the sidelines)," Dooley said. "But at the end of the day, we tell our players that they have to listen to the doctor so I wouldn't be a good example if I didn't."
Heading into the third week in October, the Vols' spirits have been high flying this week according to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
With the No. 1 team in the country coming to Neyland Stadium this weekend, the football team will have a daunting task ahead of them, but it knows that.
"[Practices have been] very good, very spirited, and a lot of fun," said Chaney. "The kids are enjoying it and they are flying around having good practices, I am really excited about it, it's good. This team has done a pretty good job of practicing throughout the season. They haven't shocked me with it, but it has been fun to go out on the field and have a good time this week."
The Vols will look to bring that positive energy into the game as they get set to square off with their toughest opponent of the season.
And while Alabama has depth at every defensive position, expect Tennessee's offense to give them troubles.
"You go in with a handful of plays for all of the playmakers," said Chaney. "Whatever is working, you lean that way. If you are running the ball with pretty good effectiveness you stay with that. We have enough bullets going into every ball game to lean whichever way we need to go on our players on our offense."
The Vols ran for 214 yards last week against a good Mississippi State defense. This week they will be pitted against an Alabama defense that allowed just three rushing yards against Missouri last weekend.
"They are an SEC defense, they are talented, they are good, and they are very well coached," said Chaney. "You put a plan together and you go execute the play. Ultimately it gets down to man on man, can my guy block your guy and can the running backs run with aggression and secure the ball and you go out and play the football game. We aren't going to reinvent the wheel. Let's go play football."
LETTING THE PLAYMAKERS PLAY
Last week against Mississippi State, Cordarrelle Patterson made his presence felt in all facets of the offense, racking up 57 rushing yards on just three carries, catching two passes and returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney made sure that Patterson’s hot hand kept getting fed the ball against the Bulldogs and doesn’t expect that to change Saturday when No. 1 Alabama comes to town.
“He is a very good football player so you have to find ways to get him the ball,” said Chaney. “He seems to be good when you just hand it to him so maybe we will do that. He is just a good player, he catches a pass, he is explosive, you hand it to him he is good. He is a talent out there so we will find ways to get him involved.”
Over the last two games, wide receiver Justin Hunter, who notched 30 catches through the first four games of the year, has made just five receptions.
That lack of catches is due to many factors, including the coverage on him, other players having a good game and even a couple of drops. But Chaney is looking to change that against the Crimson Tide.
“Sometimes those things happen and we don’t want them to happen to such a talented football player,” said Chaney. “We are going to try to keep that from happening again and be conscious of it. We are running the ball a little bit better and that helps in that we aren’t trying to throw every ball at him, so that is different. We have to try and find ways to get him the ball.
“[Justin] wants to catch 10 balls a game; he is everything every good receiver is. They get frustrated when they don’t catch 10 balls a game and I want him to be that way. He just has to go out and perform every time on every play and he is understanding that and getting better and better as the game is going on.”
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
“We have had two really good practices and I think there is a lot of excitement any time you bring in the No. 1 team in the country, it is obviously an exciting thing and a great opportunity and we are looking forward to an incredible challenge.”
(On playing different personnel)
“We are looking at different personnel option and there will probably be different variables in the game to try to keep searching. We are trying to do our part as coaches to do the best that they can to play fast and play as best they can. And then there is that component of improving the execution of the things that they should know.”
(On the O Line)
“I think it is a good example that if you are fortunate enough to sign quality, size, athletic players that are very good at their position, that have the right make up from a character and work ethic standpoint and you give them time to develop, good things are on the horizon. This is the same group that was criticized and beat down last year and to their credit they have stayed the course, kept their focus on what they can control and they are starting to get the kind of results that we knew they were going to get over time.”
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHANEY
(On the running backs)
“Certainly do, they went out and performed at a pretty good level. We wanted them to hold on to the ball and that scares you because they haven’t gotten all the reps in practice of getting hit and holding on to the ball. Those things worry you. We have to do a better job with ball security on our offense, so ultimately that is what we are doing.”
(On being able to find Alabama’s weaknesses)
“No. I will be looking until Saturday at 11 p.m. They are very talented and they are well coached, they are everything you guys know about.”
(On the offensive line)
“I don’t know about progress, I think they have been performing well all season. I am really proud of those kids. They are juniors and seniors and they should be and are. They are doing their job and doing it well.”
(On running the ball against Mississippi State)
“I don’t know. I don’t think we were trying to slow things down. I felt like I was calling plays that were working for us and it tended to be the run game. That is ok, that’s good. Anytime you can run the football in the SEC you ought to be proud of it because it is difficult to do.”
(On working on fundamentals)
“Players are like coaches, we all have fleas. You have to work on the things to get better and he is doing those things. The fundamentals of catching the ball when you are contested, the depth of routes, all the fundamental things that wide receivers have to work on. I wouldn’t just put that on Justin, would say that all of our wide receivers is.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On his wife traveling to see everyone play)
“My wife has been in Pittsburgh, she has been in Tuscaloosa, she has been everywhere. She went to Dallas. She has been everywhere. It has been hard for her too. You just talk about me and my son but for her, she is trying to be a wife and she is trying to be mother. She is trying to be strong, she is trying to be supportive both ways but it is tough.”
(On if his wife will attend Saturday’s game)
“I don’t know if she is coming to the game on Saturday. To be honest with you, I don’t really want her to come. The game is going to be on TV, she needs to be at home, relaxing. That is what I think. She is a strong woman and she will make her own choice. She will do what she needs to do.”
(On how much he has seen Tino play)
“I think it was twice. It is hard. Any time you as a father can’t be there with your kid and support your kids the way you would want to it is tough.”
(On Vinnie’s maturity during times like this)
“He has been unbelievable during it. I just know this, every time we talk it is a special moment.”