KNOXVILLE — Sal Sunseri has tossed a thick playbook at his Tennessee defense in a short amount of time.
The former NFL and Alabama assistant has been the Volunteers' defensive coordinator for three months, but the true test of his teaching and his players' learning ability has come in seven practices this spring.
At the halfway mark of an important period in the transition to the new defense, Sunseri is feeling good about his unit's progress.
"They've responded; they've done a lot of good things and they're trying to work hard," he said after Wednesday's practice, when UT's assistants met the media for the first time this spring. "It's a lot of new language for them, but they have given me everything they have. I'm extremely pleased with their effort. I'm extremely pleased the way that they're trying to come learn it.
"Are they going to learn it overnight? No, they're not. But these guys have come in here, they've bought in, they want to get better, they want to go out and want to play like a champion."
The Vols are transitioning to a base 3-4 defense, though the whole goal of coach Derek Dooley's decision to hire Sunseri was to create a more multiple defense. From his time with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban at LSU and Alabama to his six-year tenure under John Fox with the Carolina Panthers, Sunseri has pulled from a number of defensive schemes. Based on comments from players through two weeks of spring practice, UT's new defense is complex with new positions, new terminology, new alignments and new techniques.
There's still a sense of excitement among the players, though, about the potential of an aggressive attacking defense built on confusing an offense. Sunseri said the Vols have scaled nothing back and stuck to a fast-paced agenda. There's really no other option in order to accomplish Sunseri's goal of installing 80 percent of his defense in four weeks and 15 practices.
"You have to because the game of football right now is a bunch of changes, strengths, motions, different looks and all that," he said. "Football right now is a tough sport because everybody's spreading you out trying to confuse you. You have to give [players] the tough things early so they adjust to the tough things early, because when the easy things come, it makes it that much easier.
"We're going to prepare them for every situation. That's our job as coaches. We're going to get them right, they're going to fly to the football and they're going to know what they're supposed to do."
The Vols continue to mix and match their personnel at all three levels of the defense. Friday's scrimmage will be the first test for the defense in the scheme, and it also will provide a crucial evaluation for the coaching staff. Sunseri, who declined to single out any individuals on Wednesday, said he wants to see his defense align correctly and play with toughness and smarts.
"This game's not won by just one person," he said. "It's won by a team playing together, doing your job and executing what you're supposed to do. There's 11 guys out there playing against people, and if we can win nine out of the 11 matches, we're going to be successful.
"Then we also have to be smart. This game is more than just going and hitting somebody and all that. You've got think, you've got to know your leverage, you've got to play this game with a passion, you've got to play this game with knowledge, you've got to know the down and distance, you've got to know the situation -- it's the total package, and that's what I want these guys to know."
That total package is in line with Sunseri's desired brand of defense.
"My whole thing is if you go out and you put your product on the field and your name's on your back, I want toughness, I want discipline and I want you to act like a pro," he explained.
That standard requires the Vols to learn a lot in a short amount of time both on and off the practice field. It also requires the coaching staff to be demanding in practice. That's fine for Sunseri and his fiery, passionate personality.
"I think he's great," said rising senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner. "I think he's a guy that expects the most out of the players. Whatever he don't see, he's going try to get it out you. He's a fire guy, and I think he's fun to have around.
"If you sort of have a mishap in practice, he'll get in your face a little bit. But after that play we know it's no hard feelings. He just expects the best out of us."
So far, that's what he's gotten.
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 ...