KNOXVILLE — Sal Sunseri last called plays as a defensive coordinator 13 years ago.
Tennessee's first-year coordinator has been coaching defenses since 1985, though, and all those games on the sideline have put him in a position to know what to expect.
Yet when the Volunteers open the season Friday night against North Carolina State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Sunseri will have to do some adjusting as he goes.
"You can't be surprised by anything they do to you," he said after Tennessee's practice Tuesday morning. "You've got to go back and study tape on them and see what they've done two years, three years down the road. We've done our work -- we've been here late at night -- and we're just going to call it and see how it happens."
After eight years at Pittsburgh, his alma mater, Sunseri was Illinois State's defensive coordinator for the 1994 season. Following a three-year stint as Louisville's linebackers coach, the 53-year-old ran the defense at Alabama A&M for two years. He's been a position coach since then, albeit under two great defensive minds in Nick Saban at LSU and Alabama and John Fox, the former Carolina Panthers coach who now coaches the Denver Broncos.
For Sunseri to have to navigate through a bit of a relearning process is only natural.
"I think there's going to be some growing pains," said Derek Dooley, Tennessee's third-year head coach. "To say there won't be is not really acknowledging human nature. When you get back in the saddle of doing something you hadn't done in a while or you've never done, you're always going to have growing pains."
The Vols have made efforts to avoid growing pains affecting them on the sideline. With Sunseri's expertise in the front seven, Dooley wanted to add a coach with defensive coordinator and secondary experience, so he hired Josh Conklin as safeties coach. Graduate assistant Brandon Staley, who helps Sunseri with Tennessee's linebackers, was the defensive coordinator at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College the past two seasons.
"I hope it will help on the adjustments and that sort of thing," Dooley said, "but we'll find out."
The connections on Tennessee's defensive staff have made the transition relatively smooth, and though they appear to be better and more demanding teachers, how they'll perform when the bullets are flying remains to be seen. Sunseri's fiery passion makes him best suited to stay on the sideline, along with cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley and defensive line coach John Palermo.
Conklin and Staley will man the coaching box.
"We talked about it as a staff, and we just decided that may be the best fit," Conklin said. "With coordinator experience I think I can put some eyes on it. Coach Staley will be up there as well, so we'll have some good sets of eyes up there in the box."
It's a tough first test for the new group thanks to N.C. State's offensive experience. With senior quarterback Mike Glennon back, a veteran offensive line and the Wolfpack's occasionally quicker tempo, the Vols' new scheme will be tested, especially in the communication from the press box to the sideline to the field.
In the past week, coaches and players have noted the Wolfpack's pre-snap shifts and motions, and the Vols' secondary spent an entire practice period Tuesday against similar movement mimicked by the scout team.
Through a mock game last week and two preseason scrimmages, Tennessee's defensive staff has tried to simulate the game-day feel, but Dooley acknowledged it's not a perfect indicator of game-day performance.
"When we did the mock game last week, I felt like we had really solid communication," said Conklin, who spent time in the box and on the field as The Citadel's defensive coordinator the past two seasons. "We got the checks that we needed to. We went in there blind as a coaching staff as far as the guys up in the box, just so we could relay the information that we needed to relay, and we got it quick.
"I think guys being on the same page and being around how guys are going to be on game day definitely helps you out as you go in."
Despite the long layoff between his coordinator stints, Sunseri's experience should help as well.
"It's like playing," he said. "If you know what formation they're coming out in and what the play is, you'll know where the ball's going. You understand that?
"It's boom, if you study the tape and you see what they're doing, you've got to have calls for it. Then you go out and execute it. That's probably the biggest thing."
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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