Tennessee Getting Tough While Learning Tough Defensive Schemes

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The mindset of the Tennessee defense is changing from multiple angles. Not only has new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri implemented multiple defensive schemes, but he has demanded “toughness,” while doing it.

“My whole thing is if you go out, you put your product on the field and your name is on your back, I want toughness, I want discipline and I want you to act like a pro,” Sunseri said after the Vols’ Wednesday morning practice inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.

Considering the complexity of everything the Vols are trying to take in this spring, Sunseri has been pleased with the progress.

“They’ve responded,” Sunseri said. They’ve done a lot of good things. They’re trying to work hard. It’s a lot of new language for them. They’ve given me everything they have. I’m extremely pleased with their effort. I’m extremely pleased with the way that they’re trying to come learn it. Are they going to learn it overnight? No, they’re not.

“They’re going to keep on working. We have 15 days and that’s the way I look at it. Then, we’re going to have another 27 days. These guys have come in here. They’ve bought in. They want to get better. They want to go out and play like a champion.” Becoming a champion doesn’t just happen because of the players putting in extensive work, though. Everyone in the program is putting in the work.

“No, because I think we have good coaches,” Sunseri said on whether the players are struggling with the concepts. “Derek went out, got good coaches and we work hard at what we do. We stay here very late at night. The most important thing is that we’re going to give the kids the information for them to be successful.”

While much has been made of the Vols’ base 3-4 defense, Tennessee will show multiple looks in 2012. But it isn’t anyone else’s system.

“I’m putting the University of Tennessee’s system in,” Sunseri said. “I’ve worked with John Fox, who you guys know was a 4-3 guy. You’re going to see a multiplicity of fronts and coverages. It’s the University of Tennessee system.”

For the University of Tennessee system to work, it has to be about the University of Tennessee.

“I’m pleased with the whole defense, not necessarily one individual,” Sunseri said. “This game is not just one person. It’s won by a team playing together, doing your job and executing what you’re supposed to do. There are 11 guys out there playing against people. If we can win nine out of the 11 matches, we’re going to be successful.”

That requires every single person to be all-in as Sunseri transforms his unit.

“We also have to be smart,” Sunseri said. “This game is more than just going and hitting somebody and all that. You have to think. You have to know your leverage. You have to play this game with a passion. You have to play this game with knowledge. You have to know the down-and-distance. You have to know the situation. It’s the total package and that’s what I want these guys to know.”


Vols’ offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has taken on the role of coaching the quarterbacks this season and it’s a duty he absolutely “loves.”

“I am very pleased,” said Chaney, who has spent time working with running backs and tight ends in his first three years with the Vols. “I sit in the room and look around at those kids and I love them. I think they are doing a great job and I think they are a talented group of kids and I am excited to coach those kids. They are working hard and I am excited about it and the possibilities of that room.”

Chaney feels the transition to coaching the signal callers on a full-time basis has been smooth and is looking forward to seeing the quarterbacks flourish.

“I love that room,” Chaney said. “I feel real comfortable with our staff and where we are sitting at. I am ready to coach the quarterbacks; I think we have three pretty good ones.”

Of course much of focus is on returning starter junior Tyler Bray, who got off to a sensational start to his 2011 season before suffering a broken thumb vs. Georgia that derailed him. Bray has continued to grow and mature as he is in the midst of his third spring practice with Tennessee after graduating high school early to begin his career in Knoxville in 2010.

“Tyler is consciously trying to become a moral vocal leader, it is not natural for him to yell and scream he would rather just play football, but he is trying to do that, quite honestly because we need that,” Chaney said. “I don’t know if any of our quarterbacks are vocal, fiery, `let’s go guys, let’s kill these guys,’ type of guys. But they are all trying to get more ownership and be a little more vocal, and I am trying to push that too.”

Bray may be the incumbent, but Chaney has seen a lot of progress from sophomore Justin Worley. Chaney has also been impressed with freshman Nathan Peterman’s adaptation to the college game.

“I am telling you, (Nathan) Peterman has come in and is picking things up great, and (Justin) Worley is acting like an older guy,” Chaney said. “I mean he is really playing well right now and Tyler (Bray) is more confident and calm and acting a lot more mature. It is fun, the room is fun.”

With three capable quarterbacks in camp, Chaney feels there is a level of competition that can add to Bray’s motivation. But the majority of Bray’s push will come from within the California native.

“I think Tyler, quite honestly, from a mature standpoint is competing with himself more than anything else,” Chaney said. “He is trying to become a better football player and I am tickled to death. We are all better when we know somebody is shoving on us a little bit. I don’t think whether he would overtly notice that, but I think he is feeling it. We all do.”


To find an answer to what has been a big problem, Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham is focusing on the small things.

After inheriting a running game that averaged just 2.8 yards per rush last season, Graham is pleased with the progress his charges have made so far this spring.

“We’re doing good,” Graham said. “The biggest thing is that I see the effort is there, it’s just the little technical things and learning what to do in every situation. Whether it is pass protection, running the ball inside or outside the box, we just have to pay attention to detail and focus on the little things.

“I looked at (last year’s film), but the most important thing is what we do from this point going forward. The thing that is important for me is every day I am looking at and evaluating every drill, grading every practice. They have to understand that because we have to be perfect on everything we do technically.”

One of those “little things” is the ability to hold onto the ball. To work on that, Graham has been extremely active in certain drills, trying to get the ball away from his running backs any way he can.

“You just have to learn how to squeeze the ball and always think about it,” Graham said. “I feel like if we can drill it now, physically it just becomes natural to you. Natural to hold that ball tight when you are cutting and coming out of breaks and all that stuff.

“I try to poke at it. That’s what defensive players do, they try to rip away at the ball. You just have to continuously think about holding that elbow tight and doing those things. I am just trying to make them focus on that.”

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can see a difference in the running backs this spring with Graham tutoring them.

“It seems like they are more focused,” Chaney said. “I think either it is Jay, you have to give him some of the credit, but I think quite honestly as a group, as an offense, we ran the ball so poorly last year I think we are a tad bit embarrassed about what we got done so everyone has a pretty good workman’s attitude right now.”

In addition to the technical aspects of the position, Graham is also working to install a more physical mindset in his running backs.

“We have to run hard, we have to run physical and we have to be desperate to gain every extra yard we possibly can,” Graham said. “Whatever they give us. If they give us one yard, we have to fight and strain to get three.”



(On the difference of talent level from two years ago to now)

“I don’t know. I would say it is in different positions, but I don’t know. I can’t say one way or the other on that. I think that I am pleased with where we are at in talent level with this existing team. They seem to be working hard. You are always trying to upgrade that. Coaches, we are never happy with our talent level, you know how that is. Just trying to recruit and get better players. But I am pleased with how hard the kids are working.”


(On what he is looking for in the first scrimmage on Friday)

“Ball security and physicality. Those two.  That is it. If we can hold onto the ball and not turn it over, and play as physical as we possibly can, I will be happy.”


(On if he has seen more physicality)

“I have and I have seen it, I feel like I have seen it everywhere. I have seen it more when I go upstairs and watch tape and see the outside receivers are actually attempting to try and block people. I am excited about that. They are buying into what we are selling right now. I am looking forward to going out on the field and when the coaches aren’t out there and see if they can carry the group work from practice out into Neyland and see if we can get it going.”


(On how the offensive line is doing)

“I think they are doing good. They are getting used to Sam a little bit and that is always good. That is important. That camaraderie between coach and players is critical in that spot. They are getting used to one another; there aren’t a lot of new plays for those kids. It’s fun to coach guys that when you call a play, they don’t look at you and say, ‘what is that?’ So, they actually know the plays, it has been good for us. We are a little ahead of probably where the defense is because they are putting in a whole new structure and our plays we pretty much know right now.”


(On emphasizing tempo)

“No, we are just trying to work on that. It was a bad part of our offense last year and we are trying to go no huddle and we weren’t very good at it. I have tried to make it a point of emphasis. For a couple reasons, just to get our tempo better because a little bit of what you were talking about from leadership, we have a lot quiet and introverted guys, ‘Let’s go.’ Let’s bring a little more energy and a little more speed on the field. That is why are doing that.”


(On tight ends)

“I like that a lot. If I am Charlie, I am liking that room too. My room, I think I love it, the quarterbacks. With Brendan Downs, Cameron Clear, and Mychal Rivera, that is a good solid room. It’s been a little hurtful that Justin Meredith got hurt and couldn’t do anything for us, we would have liked to see what he could have done this spring, but those three kids there and Ben Bartholomew has been playing a lot of that position also so it has been fun. They are mature, they know what they are doing, it is fun to coach those kids.”



(On Tennessee being more than just football)

“I don’t want these kids just to come to school to play football. I’m not interested in that. I want them to come developed as a man. Your football career is only going to last so long. It happened to me. I got drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. I blew my knee out early. Thank God that I had somebody telling me that ‘You have to get your degree.’ If you’re lucky to go to the NFL and you’re lucky to play for eight years, that’s a long time before you have to retire. Get educated, do what you want to do and be a successful man. We’re preparing you and developing you for life after football.”


(On whether he’s had to scale anything back)

“I haven’t scaled anything back. We have an agenda on board, we’re going to attack the agenda and we’re going to be successful doing it.”


(On settling players into certain positions)

“We’re still mixing guys around. We’ll mix them around until we find out who will be the best. That’s the beauty of spring ball. When we get close to the end, you start putting people where you think they can play. You start going with that so that they can get ready for the fall.”


(On what Ansley and Conklin bring to the secondary)

“I think they brought great energy. They brought great technique. They’re working with these kids. They’re meeting with these kids. They’re bringing in the system that’s a pro-style system. If you’re a recruit out there and you want to get ready to go to the National Football League, the University of Tennessee is the place to come.”


(On the amount of the defense he expects to be installed this spring)

“Probably about 80 percent.”


(On what he’s looking for during Friday’s scrimmage)

“I’m looking for them to get aligned, to play tough and to play smart.”


(On defensive line coach John Palermo)

“He’s been to places. He’s been to Wisconsin, where they went to the Rose Bowl. He was with Lou Holtz and won a national championship. I’m a believer of the old school ‘You have to come out here and you have to demand that they do it right.’ John, I know because of our experience of working in the National Football League. He knows how to get the kids to do it right. He knows how to teach them to be successful and he knows more importantly, if they listen to them they’re going to have a chance.”

Courtesy UT Media Relations

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