KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Much has been made of Tennessee simplifying its defensive schemes in recent weeks in order to allow its players to play at a faster pace.
While certain schematic changes have been made on the field, UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is more focused on the approach the team is taking off the field during the week leading up to game day.
It is that continued investment in improvement that he believes will pay off in the long run.
“I don’t believe we have stripped away that much,” Sunseri said. “We did simplify it a little bit and took some checks out, but these guys are busting their butt. They are coming in and watching tape and doing what they need to do. These guys need to learn that football is played every single day with a mentality, with a thought process and you have to know it. And when you go out there and play against football teams you have to execute. Executing and consistency is the most important thing you have to do.”
When things aren’t going the way he would like, Sunseri only knows one way to get them fixed. Hard work.
“We are just going to keep on pushing and going and making these kids the best football players they can be,” Sunseri said. “[We want to help them] learn how to compete play-in and play-out, learn how to strain their bodies, because that is what this comes down to is going out there applying technique, straining when you are in the technique and getting off and making plays.”
It isn’t just the physical side of the game that the Vols are working hard to improve at either. Because of the intricate offensive schemes found all over college football right now, Sunseri stresses the need for improvement on the mental side just as much.
“We are going out there every single week and would like to not give up any explosives, not give up any touchdowns and all that,” Sunseri said. “We have to stop that. We have to be a great defense and being a great defense is knowing what to do, how to do it and why you are doing it. I think they are getting a better understanding of that.
“Young men who are playing this game have to understand that you are no longer able to come out here and play one front and one coverage. There are multiple things that the offense is doing and you have to be able to adjust and apply your checks. Until you get to that process where you can go, you can see a formation, you know your check and you can apply it, you are going to have some problems.”
Tyler Bray and the Tennessee offense had a tough test last week against No. 1 Alabama and the top defense in the country. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney knows that and says the Vols have bounced back rather well from the 44-13 loss and had one of their best practice weeks of the season.
"I think any time you aren't executing the way you want you just work harder," said Chaney. "There is not a magic wand you can wave or a magic pill you can take, you go out and study football film more and you work hard on the practice field and concentrate a little bit more. You just amplify what you try to do on a daily basis. That is what we are trying to get done this week."
As stated by many of the players earlier this week, the 2012 Vols are a much different team than last season. Their mentality and maturity has helped the team come back from losses in a more positive light.
"When we haven't done well we have gone out and practiced better and you hope it shows up on the football field," said Chaney. "Historically that is what has happened. When you practice better, you play better. I will hang my hat on that until I get out of this profession."
Chaney believes this new attitude is because the team is truly fully vested in the program, including Bray.
"I think Tyler has gone through what everyone does," said Chaney. "The more you invest, the harder it hurts. When you put in all the hours that these kids do ... it is why it is harder on the seniors when bad things come their way than it is on the freshmen, this idea of investment is important and he has invested a lot. When you invest more, it hurts you more. I think that is common behavior."
Bray's backup, sophomore Justin Worley, is one of those younger players. Worley, however, made two SEC starts in his freshman season and Chaney believes he has a growing confidence in his second year with the program.
"I think his confidence level is a lot higher and I think he understands the offense better now than he did a year ago," said Chaney. "He has seen all the teams in the league. He understands what he has to do to get ready to play games. I think Justin has been in a good place all year and I look forward to him to be ready to play if we need him to play."
On his weekly SEC teleconference, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley touched on three topics with writers from around the league.
He raved about the Vols' leading tackler, A.J. Johnson, who has 68 tackles over UT's last four games.
"He has been the heart and soul of our defense, he has been incredibly productive, his level of consistency day-in and day-out, game-in and game-out has just been unmatched on our team," said Dooley. "He is starting to really blossom into the role of the MIKE and being a leader. We forget that he is only in his second year of the program. The more that he continues to play and take ownership of the team, he is on his way to a real special career. Against South Carolina, I think executing what we do against what they do is what he needs to do and do it every down."
Dooley detailed why the Vols are tied for second in the nation in fewest sacks allowed, giving up just three sacks through the first seven games of 2012.
"Usually when you don't have many sacks, especially when you are throwing the football, it takes the whole offense to contribute to that," Dooley said. "Certainly it starts with the offensive line, and we finally have an experienced group who has a lot of good ability up front. Then it is the quarterback knowing when to get rid of the ball and how quickly to get rid of the ball. It is the receivers running fast routes so the quarterback can get rid of the ball and then it is the running backs who have to step up and make some blocks in protection.
"It is always a team thing and there is no question that this will be our toughest challenge because of the relentless pass rush that South Carolina has put on their opponents. They have a lot of special players, they play with great technique and effort and it is going to be a big challenge for us to come out of here without getting the quarterback hit."
Finally, Dooley was asked about South Carolina native and the Vols' electric kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson.
"I never have been around someone who has made a bigger impact in such a short time," said Dooley. "The first game of the year he really stepped up. He has incredible playmaking ability. It is just really early in his development as a wide out, but when he has the ball in his hands and he has a little space to work with he can do special things."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHANEY
(On South Carolina’s front seven)
“I think they are dominant. They have game wreckers in the front. Their D-line plays extremely hard. If you don’t take care of them you won’t have a chance to do anything in the back half of their defense. They are exceptional. They play hard as heck. One thing that shows up, and I have said this before, I always look at the effort level of people and how they play football because as coaches we understand sometimes execution doesn’t go the way we wanted but the effort of their team is fantastic. They play their best.
(On Jadeveon Clowney being the best defensive end in the SEC)
“Very good. I am not going that far, I don’t know I haven’t been here that long. He is very good. There are so many good defensive players in our conference he is definitely one of those elite players that if you aren’t aware of where he is at and what he is doing he will wreck your game plan in a heartbeat.”
(On being prepared for Clowney)
“I have watched a lot of people tried to two and that didn’t work very well. But if we put three or four over there that would like pretty strange formationally. I don’t know. We are going to do things to try to change things up, obviously like everybody does on great pass rushers to try and change the rhythm on him. But he is a heck of a great football player. He is going to make his plays. What you have to do is try to minimize them. Kind of like Jordan, when he used to score 30 you are probably pretty happy, it wasn’t 60 so you are probably okay. He is a good player, he will make his plays, we have to do our job the best we can.”
(On Rajion Neal playing this Saturday)
“I don’t know that. You would have to ask Coach on that. He was out doing stuff; we will see where it goes by the end of the week. But if he is playing, obviously he is a good football player and we would love to have him back.”
(On the receivers playing up to his expectations)
“When you score as few points as we did Saturday, nobody is playing at the level of football you want them to play at. Ultimately our job is to score points and when we aren’t getting that done, we aren’t coaching well enough nor is anybody executing the plays that we call good enough. So, everything needs to be improved from team takeoff to route depth, the details of assignment and passing game have been sloppy for a few weeks. We are trying to clean that up this week.”
(On Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard potentially starting)
“It is awesome. They have performed well throughout the season, we expect them to step up to the plate and if they have to play they will be ready to go.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On the team’s effort in practice)
“Practice has been good. The guys have gone on and we are pushing right them through it. They are trying to get better at the fundamentals and they are working hard. They worked hard today. I was very excited about the way they came out and they did not go through the motions. They went out and they tried to get better and that is what they are doing. They are giving their best shot and we just have to keep coaching and coaching.”
(On bouncing back after the Alabama loss)
“There is always disappointment and you have to forget about the disappointment. We are pushing them through it and I thought they came out yesterday and did ok defensively. They did better today and we are just going to keep on going.”
(On South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw)
“Connor Shaw has great, great feet. With that kid you have to be very good and very disciplined with your rush lanes. He makes a lot of plays with his legs and he is also a good enough thrower where he can get the ball out there. He is delivering the ball to his running backs and they won’t hesitate to run him on a quarterback sweep, they won’t hesitate to run him on a quarterback draw. He makes a lot of plays with his feet and we just have to make sure that we contain him, keep him in the pocket, and we have to play good coverage.”
(On South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore)
“Lattimore is a great back. He was a great back two years ago, he is a great back now. He has great hands and great strength so he does a very good job.”
(On the difficulty of playing in the SEC)
“The bottom line is that when you are in this conference, every single week you are going against some of the best football coaches in college football. Every single team that we have played against so far has been a [dang] good quality football team. There is nobody in this league that I’ve seen that doesn’t have a chance, so we have to go out there and our familiarity with it is good. It has been helpful and we know what they like to do. We went down there two years ago into a hostile environment and weren’t ready to play, so the most important thing that we have to do is be ready to play.”
(On who will play in the secondary this week)
“We are going to play a lot of players. You go out there and get tired and all that, we are going to get you off the field. We are going to play some players.”
(On whether the Vols need more speed in the secondary)
“You want your whole team to get faster. I don’t think you just say in the secondary. To me, if you are going to have a great defense, you are going to have speed in the defensive line, you are going to have speed and size in the linebackers. The whole team we want to get faster.”
(On whether UT has SEC speed in the secondary)
“I think we have enough to get done what we have to get done.”