KNOXVILLE — Josh Conklin made quite a leap.
From one spring practice to another in 17 days.
From defensive coordinator to position coach.
From Southern Conference to Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee’s safeties coach was the last of the seven new assistants to join Derek Dooley’s staff this offseason when he left his post as The Citadel’s defensive coordinator.
“It was really an opportunity to be with Coach Dooley, the opportunity to work under [defensive coordinator] Sal [Sunseri] and the opportunity to learn from a guy like [cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley] who’s been in a system that I think develops defensive backs,” Conklin said after the Volunteers’ practice Wednesday.
“That was intriguing to me, obviously, but also, in this profession, when you make moves you want to challenge yourself. This is a challenge for me as far as you’re learning a new system. You’re learning kind of how things work at this level. You’re learning the way that Coach Dooley handles things and how Sal handles things, and all those things are for me a great experience.”
The stream of departing assistants seemed to reach an end in early February when Dooley tabbed Ansley, a former graduate assistant under Sunseri at Alabama. But Terry Joseph, UT’s defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator and a longtime Dooley assistant, left to join Nebraska’s staff a month later.
That left the Vols in search of a second secondary coach at a difficult time, when Dooley said coaches are “reluctant” to leave.
Conklin was in the middle of his third spring practice with the Bulldogs. In his first two years there, The Citadel ranked third in the SoCon defensively and allowed more than 20 points just seven times in 22 games. The connection to UT came from Conklin’s days coaching defensive backs and special teams at Wofford (2007-09), where the Carolina Panthers, with Sunseri on the coaching staff, held training camp every year.
“When you look at your professional goals, you’d like to be a coordinator again someday,” Conklin said. “You’d like to be a head coach someday. All these things that you draw in from your experiences are really, really good because it’s things you can just put in your toolbox that you’ll use later on.
“This is an opportunity that, obviously, the tradition of the program, the guys that here on the defensive side, Coach Dooley — to me, it was a no-brainer.”
Though he’d never coached at a Football Bowl Subdivision program, the former South Dakota State linebacker and assistant was attractive for the Vols.
“I think the first thing was having a little coordinator experience,” Dooley said.”That was important to me. It’s nice to have a couple of guys on each side of the ball who’ve sat in that chair to get a little big picture. I think him being in the back end and having coordinator experience will be a good complement to Sal and what his strengths are.
“He’s had success everywhere he’s been at some tough programs, and then it was just a good feel, a good fit personality-wise.”
Conklin also had some prior experience with the transition to a 3-4 defense. His first Bulldogs’ defense ran a 4-2-5, but they made the switch, he said, based on their personnel. The Vols are making the 3-4 more of their base defense, though Sunseri’s scheme is going to implement multiple fronts, alignments and blitzes.
“When it comes right down to it, it’s a new system,” Conklin said. “For me, it’s a challenge because it’s learning a new system. It’s learning how they do things, but I guess the advantage, as far as learning the system, is being able to put it together.
“I’ve told everybody, the concepts they’re doing are not different. I’ve been exposed to them. It’s just how they package them and how they put it together, and that’s what happens when you go through this learning process.”
Sunseri noted the “great energy” Ansley and Conklin have brought to UT’s secondary. With John Palermo coaching three defensive-line positions, Sunseri and administrative intern Brandon Staley splitting the outside and inside linebackers and two secondary coaches, the Vols have Sunseri’s desired approach of specialization.
“It helps out a lot because you have a chance to get more one-on-one coaching when we’re out there versus one coach,” said rising junior Byron Moore, who’s made an early move to a first-team safety spot alongside Brian Randolph. “If he’s talking to a corner, then you’ve got to wait your turn. Now we’re more flexible with the coaches so they can be talking to more players at once.
“I love working with [Conklin] so far. He’s real smart, intelligent and very strong on making sure we’ve got our technique. It’s been great working with him and Coach D.A. so far.”
Like his players, Conklin is adjusting to his new position, new program and new defense on the fly. He may not have the same fiery coaching style that some of his fellow staffers have on the practice field, but he’s not a laid-back coach, either. He said he’s been pleased with his unit’s early-spring progress.
“What I’ve really liked about them, though, is their work ethic,” Conklin said. “Every day they come into the meeting room, every day they’re on the practice field, they are trying to get better. That makes it a lot of fun to coach them.
“They want to make the investment, so in turn you want to make the investment and give them everything you’ve got.”
Even if it requires a big jump in a small amount of time.
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 ...