published Monday, April 23rd, 2012

UT Vols' defense makes progress with new scheme

KNOXVILLE -- Sal Sunseri decided not to reveal his number.

It might have made a seemingly overwhelming task even more intimidating.

The Tennessee defensive coordinator's goal was to install 80 percent of his scheme in just 15 spring practices, which certainly meant fast-paced mornings on the field, looks of confusion and plenty of extra work off the field.

At the end of it, though, both the coordinator and his defenders feel the Volunteers made progress.

"It did [overwhelm] at first," safety Brian Randolph said after Saturday's Orange and White Game concluded spring, "but once we get in there and get the reps -- we had a lot reps and a lot of mental reps -- we finally got it down.

"I'm a lot more comfortable. I know the whole scheme of the defense now, so it's like when they put in a new play, you've got to think about the old plays and it helps you learn the new one."

Sunseri expressed throughout spring that he was pleased with his defense's effort in picking up his complex scheme, which puts the Vols in a 3-4 base defense with multiple packages. There's new terminology at all levels of the defense, and in the secondary alone the safeties align differently and the cornerbacks are using more press coverage. Not surprisingly, some Vols admitted they were swimming early on during spring.

"We knew he was going to throw it all on us at one time and let us pick it up as we go," linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "I think he threw all of it on us. We'll have a lot of busts in practice, but we go into film and correct them. Our offense is just making us work even better because they're keeping us at a high tempo and a high pace making us learn the plays fast and moving faster on the field."

The inundation of the new defense made communication, a key in any defense, difficult, especially in UT's scrimmages. Most players said that improved as time went on and they became more familiar with the scheme. In Saturday's live-game action, stopping the run was the biggest problem, according to coach Derek Dooley.

The Vols likely kept Saturday's game plan basic, which would have made it easier to communicate and align properly. Perhaps, though, it means UT's defense did take some steps toward reaching a comfort level with its new playbook. At the least, the Vols have film of 12 practices and three scrimmages to analyze as they move forward into the summer.

"You have a better opportunity to learn your mistakes and correct them and come back and get better the next day," said linebacker Curt Maggitt, who got more mental reps than anyone since he was limited all spring due to offseason shoulder surgery. "I think we have gotten a lot of guys coming in watching by themselves and learning it and being accountable to learn it.

"I knew we were going to get a lot thrown at us, but I was just trying to know it and understand it as much as possible."

Defensive end Darrington Sentimore probably has a better view on learning the new scheme as anyone. The junior-college transfer, who signed with UT in December and arrived on campus in January, played two season at Alabama while Sunseri was coaching linebackers. While his familiarity with the defense might have helped him this spring, it's not an identical scheme, and Sentimore said it takes time to learn.

"Man, it took me a whole year to come [to] Alabama and learn the system," he said. "I caught on, and I know what to expect and I know what to do now.

"I ain't going to tell you no lie, I think they've picked up the defense well because that defense is very hard to learn. I think with these guys over here, they're buying in. They want to get better and they want to win. That's what I can see. These guys over here are catching on fast."

What makes the defense difficult to learn is its multiplicity. Also, a handful of Vols were forced to learn a couple of positions so the coaches could develop a better evaluation of their personnel. After using multiplicity as his go-to descriptor since hiring Sunseri in January, Dooley coined a new term last week.

"What's different about our defense is it seems like a lot more because we're a matchup defense," the third-year coach said. "When we go nickel and they put a third wideout in the game, we've got a whole new defense that we run. When [we] go dime, we've got a whole new defense that run to try to match it up."

A number of Vols expressed excitement toward the new defense. Part of that may be the fresh ideas, and most players have high expectations on what the new scheme eventually can do both for them individually and for the overall defense. It doesn't hurt having a coach who's as passionate and demanding as Sunseri.

"We're right on track," the coordinator said. "We're doing a lot of good things. I'm extremely excited about where these kids have come with it. We have challenged them mentally, we have challenged them physically and they're learning how to deal with both so when you get that opportunity [you're ready'.

"I'm pleased with these kids. Am I satisfied? No. Are we ever going to be satisfied? Probably not."

The Vols probably feel some degree of satisfaction after having so much thrown at them in a short time, but they also know they're not at 100 percent.

"As a whole defense, I think we came a million miles from where we were when we started," linebacker Herman Lathers said. "But we still have a long ways to go."

At least now they know the number.

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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