published Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Tennessee Vols' toasted secondary to play more zone

  • photo
    Prentiss Waggner, shown here working against Akron's Keith Sconiers in September, is a veteran Tennessee defensive back who has been part of the secondary's struggles this season.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- The 721 yards Tennessee's defense allowed to Troy was eye-opening.

Cornerback Prentiss Waggner provided another surprising number after Monday morning's practice.

Tennessee's secondary surrendered 496 passing yards to increase its grip on the title of the Southeastern Conference's worst pass defense, as the Trojans found success against Volunteers defensive backs on slants, downfield routes and just about everything else.

"It was real tough going back to [watch] the vertical routes that they gave us," Waggner said. "We play 85 to 90 percent man-to-man [coverage], so we're going to get some balls caught on you, but they've got to be basically like 60-40 or 70-30 we win the deal. We've just got to get that ball out and just learn to compete when the time counts.

"Because we haven't met those goals, I think this week [defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri] is going to play a little bit more zone."

It's one of a number of defensive changes Tennessee is trying nine games into the season. The problems lining up and misalignments that plagued the Vols earlier in this season have become struggles with matchups, but the results haven't changed.

Third-year head coach Derek Dooley hinted at game-day changes that "could" include Sunseri moving from the sideline to the coaches' booth for Missouri's visit and said he's now going to focus "all my attention" to the defensive side of the ball to help the search for any kind of solution.

"It'd have been probably reactionary if I'd have done it four weeks ago, but then you look back and maybe I should have," said Dooley, whose coaching background was with offense and special teams. "I'm not there saying I'm the guru. I'm not. I'm just there watching, listening, resolving any conflict, and if I think we shouldn't do something, I'm saying we're not doing that.

"It's just another eye and another set of ears, another voice, and it'll give me a little more comfort in saying, 'I don't want that.'"

The coaching staff will direct its attention to what Dooley calls "stress points," one of which is certainly at cornerback, where Tennessee has struggled mightily even going back to last season. The Vols have tried a number of personnel combinations there with little success. Waggner lost his starting spot to freshman Daniel Gray, who was burned a couple of times on deep patterns against Troy and eventually split playing time with Waggner.

Justin Coleman found the going equally as tough against Troy's Eric Thomas, who beat the sophomore for a handful of plays, including two touchdowns.

"When you play man that much, you're going to get beat, but what we're trying to do is we're trying to lower the percentage of them catching it," Coleman said. "If it's five passes thrown, we're trying to only allow them to have one out of the five. We're trying to win four of them.

"It's something I guess we've just got to get over, because balls are getting thrown over our heads and sometimes we don't make the play. That's just something we've got to get back up on and play harder the next time, the next play. We're trying to stay positive because we know we've been having a hard time in the secondary."

Waggner, a fifth-year senior, has had as hard a time as anybody. A 2010 All-SEC second-team safety who intercepted two passes in six starts at corner last season, Waggner didn't make a tackle against Alabama and South Carolina. The preseason All-SEC third-team selection didn't start for the first time in 33 games against Troy.

"It's real frustrating because I'm a guy that always works hard," he said. "I always watch a lot of film and things like that. I have pretty good practices throughout the week, and to go out there and don't necessarily display on the field when the time counts [is frustrating].

"Some plays I play perfect man-to-man technique, but the ball don't come my way. Those times when that ball comes your way and they make the play, that's when everybody sees it. That's what you've got to live with playing at corner."

Tennessee's coaches haven't helped their corners' quality of life by continually playing man-to-man in the back end. Though not much is working for the Vols, that coverage certainly has been ineffective. Dooley clarified Waggner's comments and suggested the Vols might try a schematic switch.

"When we say that, it's not necessarily we're calling man-to-man," the coach said. "I say man-match, so much of what we do in zone coverage is let things sort out, and then you go cover the guy, which is a different philosophy. It is, [but] it's something that I believe in.

"It's why we're doing what we're doing, but it also requires good matchups and it requires a little stress up front sometimes and it requires stress on the corners sometimes. At some point you've got to say let's quit trying to square peg in a round hole and maybe do some things to take some of the pressure off the kids. That's what we're going to do."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

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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