published Thursday, February 9th, 2012

New coaches set to revamp Vols defense

University of Tennessee NCAA college football defensive coordinator  Sal Sunseri talks to reporters at the indoor practice facilty on the school campus in Knoxville, Tenn.
University of Tennessee NCAA college football defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri talks to reporters at the indoor practice facilty on the school campus in Knoxville, Tenn.
Photo by Associated Press.
  • Sal Sunseri on working with the Vols
    Sal Sunseri discusses why he decided to take a job at the University of Tennessee.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defensive football players will have to wait another 46 days before they'll get the chance to physically begin learning new coordinator Sal Sunseri's new schemes.

Until then, the Volunteers have plenty of watching and studying to do.

Sunseri won't earnestly begin installing and teaching his defense to his players until spring practice begins next month, and in the meantime the Vols will have to rely on watching tape of the NFL's best players and their coordinator's two previous stops as examples of what they'll do next fall.

"They need to go watch Alabama tape and see the things we did," Sunseri said Wednesday, his first media appearance since he was hired by Derek Dooley on Jan. 13. "They need to go watch the Carolina Panthers, because that's what we're going to do. I've been around some pretty good coaches, and we're going to do what has won."

Winning is something Sunseri's done at each of his previous stops with the Panthers' John Fox and Alabama's Nick Saban. He won two national titles as the Crimson Tide's outside linebackers coach and reached the Super Bowl eight years ago as Carolina's defensive line coach. Along with success, the other common denominator with Sunseri has been the 3-4 defensive scheme.

Much as Dooley did last month, Sunseri insisted the Vols would be multiple on defense. However, the 52-year-old noted the success he's had in the 3-4. How much of that UT runs in Sunseri's first season is yet to be determined.

"I'm going to tell you this," he said, "when you guys are watching us, you're not always going to see us in a 3-4 and you ain't going to always see us in a 4-3. You're going to see multiplicity of fronts. It's harder to ... run the ball versus multiplicity than it is against a same front."

The task of studying, though, goes beyond the players and beyond Sunseri's last two stops. Sunseri believes it's important for his players to watch film of NFL players as a way of learning and simulating techniques and mechanics. He also said UT's defensive coaches would increase their efforts in gathering NFL perspectives, whether it be by traveling to visit with NFL coaches at the league's scouting combine later this month or hosting them in Knoxville.

"We're going to utilize the people I know," he said, "and we're going to get better because we're going to go study football."

While they're studying football, Sunseri and UT's new defensive coaches will also study their current team. Ultimately, it's the players at his disposal that will determine how Sunseri devises schemes and calls plays. Though the indications point to the 3-4 becoming the Vols' base defense, how much Sunseri will be able to use it next season depends on his personnel.

"We're going to do what these kids can do," he said. "I won't know that till I come out and see these guys moving around and what they're able to do."

The six-week period between now and spring practice is important for players go soak up as much as they can about their new defense, but it's equally important as the coaching staff discovers what they have with which to work.

"Can [Mo] Couch play here? Can [Darrington] Sentimore play there? We're having some personnel discussions as well as scheme discussions right now," said new defensive line coach John Palermo.

"Until we settle on what we're going to do, we can't tell the kids what we're going to do. Now we're in discussions about, 'If we go to this, this is how we're going to do it. If we go that, this is how we're going to do it.' We have a plan in place, but until we find out what the kids can do, I don't think Sal's made a decision."

Sunseri said he's met with some players, though he didn't indicate any specific position changes that may be in store for certain players. Some players, like Willie Bohannon and Ooltewah native Jacques Smith, likely could transition from defensive ends in UT's old scheme to linebackers in the new defense. Couch played defensive tackle last season, but he could slide to end moving forward.

While UT's coaches analyze the hand they're holding, the Vols must do their homework and ask questions when necessary.

"There's going to be multiple things that these kids have to learn, and we're going to demand that they learn it and they will learn it," Sunseri said. "It's been good. They're up here every single day wanting to meet.

"Right now with the time we're doing with the coaching staff, installing and getting done what we have to get done, it's interesting how many kids are coming through the facility wanting to get extra time to study."

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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