KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defense has made an effort to keep things simple the past few weeks.
It's not equaled an improvement in production.
The Volunteers, now last in the Southeastern Conference in points and yards allowed per game, continue to struggle stopping opposing offenses, but first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri insists he's seeing improvement.
"We'd like to not give up any explosives," he said Wednesday morning after Tennessee's practice. "We'd like to not give up any touchdowns. We've got to stop that.
"We've got to be a great defense, and being a great defense is knowing what to do, how to do it and why you're doing it. I think they're getting a better understanding of that."
It's been a frustrating season for the Vols defensively to this point, and the list of dubious has continued to grow. Tennessee is allowing 43 points and 522 yards per game to SEC opponents. The program never had allowed 40 or more points in three consecutive games before this season, and that streak could reach four at 17th-ranked South Carolina on Saturday.
There have been some stretches of stops and takeaways, but bad is far outweighing the good.
"We feel like we are getting better, but as you know we get judged off the stats, so it is what it is," safety Byron Moore said. "We feel like we are getting better each week. We've just got to go out there and put it all together for once."
Head coach Derek Dooley indicated earlier in the week that schematically the Vols have gone as simple as they could, but Sunseri said Wednesday he didn't believe he'd "stripped away that much." The pre-snap confusion appears to have decreased over the course of the last few games, but there were still some busts in the secondary against Alabama. The coaches continue to search for the fine line between putting too much on their players and being too easy to solve for offenses.
"We're trying to keep at that balance," safeties coach Josh Conklin said. "We're trying to keep it as complex as we can, but in my opinion, you can teach it in simpler ways at times. I think that's what we've done as a staff.
"We've tried to say, 'OK, how can we make the complexities complex to an offense, but keep them simple for our guys,' as far as the adjustments and those types of things. Are we keeping it simple? We are maybe in terms in how we're teaching it, but we still have the ability to do quite a bit of things schematically."
At some point, though, players have to execute the calls and make plays when in position. Missed tackles plagued the Vols and led to too many long runs earlier in the year. The Crimson Tide won four one-on-one battles deep down the field against Tennessee cornerbacks.
Most players this week acknowledged a need to perform better regardless of scheme simplicity.
"We were simpler," linebacker Herman Lathers said. "It helps, but you've still got to play your responsibility. When you don't, you give up plays.
"It doesn't matter how simple you get if you give up plays and don't play your assignment."
The defensive struggles, along with untimely turnovers and occasional inconsistency on offense, have turned into losses, and those losses have cranked up the volume of questions surrounding the future of Dooley and his staff at Tennessee.
"It's not the coaches. It's the players," linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "Coaches give us the scheme, and we go out there and execute it. We haven't been doing a good job of that at all.
"Coach Dooley ... he tells us he knows what we're capable of, and we just have to go out there and do it. We haven't been playing the way we can. It's on us, definitely.
"Like Coach Dooley said, [the fans] shouldn't be happy [with] the way we've been performing."
Sunseri stressed that his players are continuing to work hard to change things by watching tape and demonstrating good effort in practice.
"When you go out there and you play against good football teams, you've got to execute," he said. "Execution and consistency's the most important thing you've got to do. I don't care if you call the very first call we ever put in -- if you don't execute it right, we've got problems.
"The kids are going out and they're trying to do it. It's been not what we've wanted. The result factor isn't what we want it, but we're going to keep on pushing and going and making these kids the best football players they can be."
Conklin believes the Vols are closer than the ugly numbers would suggest.
"It's a frustrating deal because I think on the outside looking in you don't think we're that close," he said, "but when you go over the film as many times as we have and you watch the games we have two or three times, you realize that we're really, really close. It always seem like it's 10 guys executing right and one guy not guy executing right, and when that one guys doesn't execute right, it's exposed. We've just got to get all 11 guys executing at the right time all the time."
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart made a brief appearance in which he talked to a couple of assistant coaches during the open period of practice Wednesday morning. ... Though he's still not 100 percent healthy, tailback Rajion Neal's ankle continues to improve, and the Vols' leading rusher was in good spirits after practice. ... Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said a decision has yet to be made on who would start at right guard between Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard, who again worked with the first-team offense, if starter Zach Fulton (ankle) can't play Saturday.
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 ...