KNOXVILLE — Win or lose, the standard and approach for Sal Sunseri's defense remain the same.
Even though his Tennessee players looked particular awful at times in allowing 51 points and 560 yards to Georgia, the Volunteers' first-year coordinator isn't pounding the panic button.
The mistakes need correction, but the demands haven't changed.
"It's been good," Sunseri said after Wednesday's practice about his team's response this week. "No one's going to feel sorry for them out there. We're going to go out there and we're going to challenge them regardless of the outcome, just like we did when we won three games and we lost two games.
"We're going to go out there and demand that they do it right, demand the standard and demand them to go make plays. It all comes down to young men making plays in space, tight quarters -- it doesn't matter. You've got to go make plays, and we didn't make enough plays [and] gave up too many big plays."
In two Southeastern Conference games, Tennessee has allowed 88 points, 1,115 total yards and 618 rushing yards. In total defense, Tennessee is 79th nationally and 13th in the SEC, ahead of only Arkansas. The 425.8 yards per game the Vols are allowing would be the program's highest since 1982 (415.7), and only once since then has a Tennessee defense allowed more than 400 yards per game (403.3 in 2007).
The Vols have given up 28 plays of 20 or more yards after surrendering just 41 such plays all of last season. Sunseri said those long gains are "killing me." The problem is a combination of things ranging from poor run-fits, misalignments and busts to not setting the edge, getting whipped at the point of attack and missing tackles.
During this open week, Tennessee has gone back to fundamentals of tackling and Sunseri's standard of having everyone flying to the football.
"Believe me, we're going to get to it," he said. "You get what you demand, and we're demanding that they get to the ball. That's what it's going to be.
"The standard around here is not going to change. It's not going to change. We're going to demand it, and we're going to find people who are going to get to the ball."
Tennessee expected some likely growing pains in a shift to a new defensive system this season, but Sunseri's focus remains on the standard amid the transition.
"If you aren't playing with it, you're not giving yourself a chance and you're not giving your team a chance to win," he said. "It has been frustrating, but we're going to work through it and we're going to get done what we have to get done. You've got to correct the things you did wrong."
'No. 33' praised
It's appearing increasingly likely freshman LaDarrell McNeil could start alongside Byron Moore at safety when the Vols visit 20th-ranked Mississippi State after the open date. Sunseri raved about the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, referring to him only as "No. 33." McNeil got his most extensive action on defense against Georgia and finished with five tackles.
"You're going to see No. 33," Sunseri said. "He went out there and played well. I'm really pleased with the kid.
"He's a kid that flies around and makes plays. He's going to make some mistakes, and we understand that. But he's also a guy that makes plays."
Tennessee's coaches like McNeil's abilities, especially his instincts and speed, two things the Vols' secondary desperately needs. Safeties coach Josh Conklin said McNeil is gaining confidence after wetting his feet against the Bulldogs. Now that McNeil has answered some initial questions to himself, he can move forward and focus on executing, Conklin said.
The Texan also showed no fear in racing toward head-on collisions with Georgia's Todd Gurley.
"You like to coach guys that want to bite," Conklin said. "If a dog doesn't bite when he's a puppy, he usually doesn't bite when he's older. LaDarrell bites, and he'll come up and he'll stick you.
"It's fun to coach. I think he brings some energy back there. We've got a young guy here that's not afraid to stick it up in there and get after it."
The Vols hope to increase Daniel McCullers' role more as the season progresses. The 6-foot-7, 360-pound nose tackle was in on a combined eight plays against Georgia State and Akron's spread offenses, and Tennessee is trying to work him more into a greater role for spread teams and passing situations. The junior college transfer made eight tackles and one for loss against Georgia.
"The way Dan's playing, we're going to try to keep him on the field as much as we can," Sunseri said. "He's done a great job, and we've just got to keep on pushing him and make him understand he has a heck of a lot of ability. We've just got to keep force-feeding it to him and make him play every down we can [because] he's a force out there."
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 ...