published Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Sal Sunseri sees progress in Vols

University of Tennessee NCAA college football defensive coordinator  Sal Sunseri talks to reporters at the indoor practice facilty on the school campus in Knoxville, Tenn.
University of Tennessee NCAA college football defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri talks to reporters at the indoor practice facilty on the school campus in Knoxville, Tenn.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The installation continues.

An end is in sight, but it's off in the distance.

Tennessee's defensive players continue to have new coordinator Sal Sunseri's system thrown at them chunks at a time, but at least now there's more retention.

At some point as the Volunteers speed toward their season opener against North Carolina State in Atlanta in 22 days, it'll slow down.

"I don't think you ever stop installing a defense, because there's different ideas and different concepts that you do," Sunseri said Wednesday morning after the first of UT's two practices for the day. "We're through with most of the heavy installation. There will be total installation all the way through camp.

"This is their second, third and fourth time hearing it. They're pretty good, and now we start retaining it."

Most of the players' heavy lifting came in spring practice, when Sunseri's goal was 80 percent of his expansive defense. The former Carolina Panthers and Alabama assistant's schemes are complex in quality and quantity. There's so much to learn -- from personnel groupings, formations and fronts to blitzes, coverages and audibles — that a number of players admitted they were just trying to keep their heads above water four months ago.

Yet those 15 practices provided valuable video for summer homework. As they did leading into spring practice, some players would gather and watch tape together to learn as much as they could. It's paid some dividends early in training camp, according to safeties coach Josh Conklin, and Sunseri added he "absolutely" feels better about his unit now than he did in the spring.

"We've obviously demanded that of them," Conklin said. "That's our expectation, but they've responded throughout the summer. You can tell they've studied their playbooks. They've worked at it; they've worked with each other on it; they've gotten together with each other and tried to figure it out.

"Those first two or three installs I thought went really pretty smooth, not that there's no mistakes -- there are mistakes. But it went really well. As we've kind of progressed, some of the newer stuff, that's where you see them swimming a little bit."

The key for Sunseri is not overloading the Vols when the season begins. Coaches say all the time that players are at their best when they play fast, and too much can thinking can be a big hindrance to reaching that level. At some point Sunseri will identify what the defense can do and what certain players can do best and tweak it to a specific opponent.

Training camp provides the chance to evaluate, and Sunseri also hasn't lacked intensity in preaching toughness, effort and playmaking through six practices.

"As you go through the script out there," Conklin said, "you make check marks next to the stuff that, 'Hey, we haven't quite got this figured out, so let's make sure we go back and review it.' Those are becoming less and less from the first two or three days. But we've got some new stuff that we've definitely got to get ironed out and keep perfecting."

Herman Lathers was one of the primary orchestrators of those offseason video sessions. As the middle linebacker, he has most of the play-calling responsibility for his 10 teammates. The installation process is nothing new for Lathers, who's on his fourth defensive coordinator since he came to UT in 2008.

"We have a lot more to install," he said Tuesday. "It's a lot every day, but as football players, Coach Sal treats us like pros. He gives us a lot and expects us to know it the next day, so we've got to go home and study.

"We're putting in everything right now, so it's just learning what we can pick up right now and what we do good at."

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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