KNOXVILLE -- The pieces of the equation are the same, so Tennessee is tweaking the formula a little bit.
Cornerback was a trouble spot last season for the Volunteers, particularly on deep passes. The cast is the same this spring, and though players could improve, the coaches are trying to help them. The emphasis through two weeks of spring practice has been technique as the Vols work toward playing more press coverage.
"The main thing is leverage -- pad level and using the hands," new cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said last week. "That's one of the things that, to be a good DB, you've got to be able to get your hands on people. I've said this 100 times, 'You can't let fast guys run down the field.'
"We've got to get up there and challenge guys at the line of scrimmage with bump-and-run and press-man techniques. That's the biggest thing. We're just trying to teach them to use their hands."
The Vols' hope is that faster, stronger hands could help their defensive backs' feet. New coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense calls for more aggressive play in the secondary. While that creates more one-on-one matchups, it also demands more physical coverage.
It's not a drastic difference from last season, when Terry Joseph coached UT's entire secondary, but Ansley said he didn't see much press from the Vols last season.
"They pressed at some times, but they didn't press as much as I think we may press this year," said the former Troy University safety. "That's all about their philosophy last year as a defense. Our philosophy -- we want to get up there and deny the ball, be physical at the line of scrimmage and give our rushers time to get to the quarterback."
The Vols were 11th in the SEC last season in sacks and 10th in pass efficiency defense. UT allowed 13 pass plays of 30 yards or more, usually because opposing receivers simply ran past UT's defenders. So with no change in the available players, the Vols had to change something elsewhere.
Head coach Derek Dooley said the secondary denied the ball "a little bit better" during Friday's scrimmage.
"It's still a collection [of DBs] and we've got to keep evaluating them, but I'm just excited that we're demanding a little more aggressiveness out there and making the offense work for it," he said. "We're going to challenge them and get our hands on the wideouts, but to do that you have to be extremely disciplined in your technique, because if you have a breakdown it could be a big play.
"Once they start believing in the technique and how it's going to help them and even how it helps them overcome any limitations they have, it's going to help them play better and better. ... When you play good receivers and you're giving them access to you down in space, it's hard to cover."
Sunseri believes Ansley is the right coach to teach the technique, though he's the youngest assistant on UT's staff. After five seasons at Division III Huntingdon College, the 32-year-old spent two seasons as a graduate assistant with Sunseri under Nick Saban at Alabama. He joined Ted Roof's staff at Central Florida in December before being hired at UT in February.
His familiarity with Sunseri's schemes and tutelage under Saban, who's known for coaching defensive backs, made him attractive for the Vols.
"He's probably one of the best youngest coaches I've ever been around at that spot," Sunseri said. "[It's] his coaching with detail and his ability to relate to players and his ability for them to do it on the field. I think he's been tutored by a pretty good guy."
Now the Vols hope Ansley can take what he's been taught and apply it to their own secondary.
"We knew coming in that we were going to do a lot of pressing, so our main focus was getting our technique right," said rising junior Izauea Lanier, one of four corners battling for two starting spots.
"I think it'll help because last year we [were] just out there playing the man without the technique. But Coach Ansley came in and started teaching us the technique, so I think that'll help us a lot. As a group I think we're adjusting real good. Everybody's buying in to what he wants, and the technique is going to take us a lot further than what we have been. I think everything's good."
Ansley believes mastering the technique is a way to improve the Vols' secondary.
"If you've got guys who can play man-to-man, you don't need to play anything else," he said. "That's the best coverage. I've got you; you've got me. All that zone and scheming is out of the window if you've got guys who can do that.
"That's what we're trying to develop and get to that point. Right now we feel good about the ability to do it, and now the guys have got to go out there and do it. That's what we're trying to coach into them and hammer it into their heads."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...