KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – When Derek Dooley leads the Vols on the field at the Georgia Dome on Friday, it will be against a long-time friend and mentor in NC State head coach Tom O’Brien.
The two go way back as O’Brien was an assistant coach on the Virginia staff when Dooley played wide receiver for the Cavaliers from 1987-90. That experience left a strong impression on Dooley as he transitioned into the coaching world himself.
“I always had a tremendous amount of respect for him when I was a player because I knew he was extremely intelligent, he was an outstanding coach schematically and he was a great motivator,” Dooley said. “He was a Marine, he was hard-nosed and tough. I just really admired him.”
Although O’Brien worked with the offensive line with the Cavaliers, Dooley was able to get a unique look at his coaching style through the words of his roommates.
“I roomed with all the offensive linemen so I had a level of respect for him as an outsider, but I also heard all the complaining from the big guys about him,” Dooley said. “Usually, that’s probably good when they are complaining a little bit that he was tough on them.”
Since joining O’Brien among the head coaching ranks, Dooley has had no hesitation to pick up the phone and call him to pick his brain about the game and utilize him as a resource for improvement.
“When I got back into coaching, he has been a real mentor for me,” Dooley said. “I leaned on him a lot when I was at Louisiana Tech because he has had tremendous consistency in all of his teams. That’s what I’ve admired most about him.”
COMFORT LEVEL HIGH FOR CHANEY
Heading into Friday’s matchup with NC State, Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney feels as comfortable with his offense as ever.
A lot of that has to do with finally having a full collection of experienced players who know their way around his offense, with 10 upperclassmen listed among the team’s 11 starters.
With a productive training camp now behind them, Chaney is ready to get out on the field and see his crew in action.
"I'm excited, I don't know about nervous,” Chaney said. “You are always excited about seeing guys go out there and perform. The guys who have played, they are a year older, you hope to see a year more maturity. The new guys you have no idea about. I'm looking forward to seeing them go out there and see what they do."
As he enters Friday’s game with a pretty good idea of what to expect from most of his players, Chaney is excited about taking that knowledge and translating it into success on the field.
"What excites any coach is when the players know the plays and when they know what they can and can't do,” Chaney said. “It's up to me to put them in the right position to make plays. That's always the excitement. The unknowns are the ones that kill coaches. I feel like I know these kids pretty well."
While that physical execution of the X’s and O’s is crucial, Chaney knows that his team must be mentally prepared to take on the Wolfpack for four full quarters as well.
“Take the Maryland ballgame where they are down by 27 in the third quarter and came back and won by , that is the challenge of NC State,” Chaney said. “They have a culture over there and kids that are used to winning. We’ll come out and it’s going to be a 60-minute dogfight. Making sure our team understands what they are walking into is the challenge. From a schematic standpoint, they play very, very hard and they are very, very sound. The challenge is making sure we are ready to play mentally.”
From a personnel standpoint, Chaney’s biggest challenge is designing a game plan for playing against NC State cornerback David Amerson, who led the NCAA with 13 interceptions last season.
The first step in doing that is determining whether he will play the wide side of the field in a zone like last season or if the Wolfpack will place him in more man-on-man situations with UT wide receiver Justin Hunter. Chaney has another position on his wish list for Amerson though.
“They appear to have kept him in the same spot,” Chaney said. Who knows? The first game he could be anywhere. I hope he is playing defensive tackle.”
TIME TO EXECUTE
One thing Tennessee Defensive Coordinator Sal Sunseri emphasized Tuesday afternoon is that the team has to go out and execute on Friday night against NC State.
In fact, he ended each answer with that statement.
Sunseri is ready for the first game of the year and he feels as though he, and the rest of the coaching staff, has prepared the team for any situation going up against the Wolfpack.
“Like anything else, you prepare yourself to go out and play,” said Sunseri. “You give the kids every opportunity because you know you are going to see something new. You have to be able to handle it on the sidelines and then you take it from there. But we put them in every situation, every grouping, every play, every surprise somehow. It is all about being able to adjust. And that is where the coaches come into factor.”
Sunseri will be the defensive play caller for the first time since 1999 when he trolled the sidelines at Alabama A&M. But he is not worried about the lapse of time; to him it’s just like playing.
“If you know what formation they are coming out of,” said Sunseri, “and what the play is you will know where the ball is going. Boom. If you study tape and see what they are doing, you are going to have calls for it and you go out and execute. That is the biggest thing.”
The first game of the year is just three days away and after along fall camp, Sunseri knows the players are ready to get out there. And execute.
“I think like anything else these guys are tired of going against each other and they want to go and try and execute the game plan and do what we have to do,” said Sunseri. “I think the kids are excited; they have been spending a lot of time on it. I think they know what to do, how to do it and why they are doing it.”
Sunseri has also put a lot of late hours in at the office, while studying a lot of tape on NC State to better prepare himself for the season opener. Here is what he has to say about the Wolfpack
Sunseri’s Snippets on NC State
· They are a team that likes to run the ball. They are very sound in what they do.
· The quarterback delivers the ball fast in intermediate routes and will take a shot if they feel they can get single high.
· They have a good, skilled receiver in Tobais Palmer and a tight end, Mario Carter, that they like to get the ball to him.
· [Running back] James Washington has made a lot of plays with his hands. He also has very good quickness to him as far as running inside zone plays.
· They will also play Tony Creery who is a bigger guy. We just have to see what they are going to do.
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On his confidence in the offense)
“I think there is some confidence in the guys that have gone out there and produced that they are going to go out there and perform the way we expect them to. I think there is high concern for the guys that haven’t been out there and produced and there are a lot of those guys too. I don’t know what the answer is. Now we have to go see. Justin [Hunter] played two games [last year], CP hasn’t played, Devrin [Young] and Rajion [Neal] have never been the runners, so this is all a new experience for those guys.”
(On the NC State defensive line)
“Their defensive line is as underrated as any D-line I’ve ever seen. It looks like an SEC D-line to me. They are very disruptive, big, physical and on third down they have a lot of twitch to hit the quarterback. This is an SEC football game. That’s how I view it.”
(On NC State’s linebackers)
“It’s the unknown. We don’t know. They could come out and be freshmen All-Americans or all-conference guys. We don’t know. We’ll see.”
(On defensive communication)
“It’s fine in practice, now we have to go see if we can communicate in a game. That’s just kind of where are team is. We are going to have to go see what we look like and then, whatever we look like, we’ll correct it and adjust moving forward.”
(On NC State’s offensive motion and shifts)
“That’s their style of play, number one. Number two, they know we do a lot of adjusting on defense so it will probably be a little more elevated.”
(On the status of injured Vols)
“[Jason] Croom is limited, Pig [Howard] is out. There is a chance [Croom will play], but he is limited. I doubt it. He’s doubtful, one below out. [Brendan] Downs is out, Dakota [Summers] is out, [Justin] Meredith is out, [Kenny] Bynum is out, Christian Harris is out, LaTroy Lewis is out and [George] Bullock is out.”
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHENEY
(On Tyler Bray saying he doesn’t get nervous before games)
“I get nervous because he doesn’t get nervous. That’s my job. He says he doesn’t get nervous? He’s beautiful. When I’m not nervous before a game, it’s time for me to go farming. And I love farming, so that’s not a knock on farming. I grew up that way so I enjoy it.”
(On whether he likes his quarterback to be even-keel)
“I like the quarterback to be a player. I’ll answer that on game day. If he goes out and performs the way I want, I’m happy with him. Whatever he did in preparation must have worked.”
(On receivers stepping up)
"There are a lot of opportunities, but there is one football. Those kids understand, if you are going to earn the right to get it, you have to demonstrate it on the practice field and they all know that. They are out there doing a good job of that, I am pleased with that.”
(On Justin Hunter)
"He looks fine to me. He's ready to go play a football game. I am excited about seeing him. I know he's thrilled to death, he's like a kid in a candy store. He's probably a little too juiced right now. He will be ready to go. He will make a few mental mistakes because he hasn't played in a while. But he is also going to make a few plays for us.
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
"He has put on the couple of pounds, he's an inch taller. His speed is up a little bit. He's figuring it out. It's all new for Cordarrelle. It's a different environment, trying to learn to practice the way we want, it's a complete learning curve. He's going to make some big plays, he's going to make some blunders. We fully expect that. We have a super talented man that has never been on the field for Tennessee. That's exactly what all first-game starters do, they all make a few mistakes. We are trying to minimize that to the best we can and let that boy be a football player. Because, he has demonstrated on video, too many times, that he's a talented player."
(On Vincent Dallas)
“It’s been fun. Vincent’s had a little rejuvenation, he’s got an energy about him and is excited about going out and playing. He’s familiar with a lot of the things we are doing and he’s created a lot more energy in the room. It’s been fun. I’m excited to see him go play, it will be entertaining to see.”
(On the run game)
"I feel comfortable as the kids have been buying into what we have been trying to teach and what we are trying to preach. But we still have to go out and perform. This evaluation prior to a ball game, this isn't the time. We will talk next week and we will say, we go a little better, maybe who knows. That's what we hope we say. We are optimistic."
(On if some of the players have a chip on their shoulder about improving the run game)
“I haven’t talked to them about chips on the shoulder, I just talk to them about player development which equals unit development. That’s all we’re after.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On the first game against NC State)
“The kids will go out and operate. See how they play, their enthusiasm, their energy, their intelligence. It will be a nice rap.”
(On focusing on the season ahead)
“I think, like everything else, going against their offense who has some very good talent, we are making our adjustments and they have handled some stuff well, but now it is time to focus on NC State and it doesn’t matter what we did from this point on.”
(On studying NC State)
“I think like anything else you can’t be surprised by anything that they do. You have to go back and study tape on them and see what they have done two years, three years back. We have done our work, we’ve been here late at night and we have to call it and see what happens.”