KNOXVILLE — There's plenty of blame to go around in regard to Tennessee's football defensive woes.
It's been a collective struggle for the Volunteers' players and coaches, and the search for answers and remedies requires a group effort.
The excitement of a new group of coaches and a new staff might have worn off as the season has progressed and the frustration level has risen, but at the least the Volunteers are striving for Saturday solutions with both sides working together during the week in meetings and in practice.
"Whenever we're watching film," safety Byron Moore said this week, "they might stop a play and ask what was going on this play and ask if it was a breakdown or if it's something the coaches are doing wrong or if the players just didn't know what it was.
"The coaches make sure they make it clear that if you don't understand something, then it's all right to speak up and say, 'Hey, Coach, I don't understand this,' or 'I'm just confused.' They're willing to take you in their office and show you what you need to get done. It's not really like everybody's going in there saying they're confused, but the coaches, they leave the door open at all times."
The open-door policy dates back to the offseason, long before Tennessee's defense became the worst in the Southeastern Conference in yards and points allowed heading into Saturday's game at 17th-ranked South Carolina. At the time, the players held the anticipation of the unknown as they watched tape of practices and other similar defensive schemes.
Now there's seven games to digest, most of them filled with missed assignments, misalignments, busts, missed tackles and missed chances to make plays.
"It's only natural for guys to get frustrated at times, which they should," safeties coach Josh Conklin said. "Hey, there is a frustration there, but they're also attacking it the right way week in and week out. You see them come, and they say, 'Hey, here's maybe what I'm not getting, here's what I don't understand,' and you can attack those things as we go forward game week.
"I know sometimes it doesn't seem like that when you're watching it and the action's happening so quickly, but when you go back and you watch the film, our guys are doing things right a large amount of the time. When you don't [do something right] and you face a really, really good football team ... you're going to get exposed. We've got to get the consistency there."
There is consistency in the weekly evaluations of personnel, including coaches. Head coach Derek Dooley said last week he'd get more involved with the defense by simply being an extra set of eyes in meetings rooms and game planning. Tweaks to rotations and lineups of who plays where and when have continued deep into the season.
"We evaluate the coaches every week on how we coach, how we motivate, how we teach, what we're running -- we do it every week, to see where can we better," Dooley said. "There's a lot of dialogue with the players. It's not we're over here and they're there.
"We work together to solve problems. If there's a way we can coach you better to help you, we're going to do it. If there's things we're doing that you don't get, we're not going to do it, but it requires a good mutual relationship of maturity and honesty to do that."
Honesty is very much part of the process, and players understand it's a big part of their third-year coach's approach. It's a part of Dooley's style that spilled over to his interactions with the media during his first two seasons at Tennessee. The coach reverted back to it this week with some strong words directed at quarterback Tyler Bray's decision to skip postgame media responsibilities after the Alabama loss and receiver Justin Hunter's recent skid.
"I didn't really think much of it or anything," one player said this week. "He's real straightforward, real honest, and I'm sure everybody knows that about him. If he feels like we played to our ability and the best we can, he'll tell us that; if we play [poorly], he'll tell us."
The players don't need much reminding. A number of them have acknowledged their frustration and understand they need to perform better. After Dooley indicated Monday his team's spirit remained "broken" amid an 0-4 SEC start and the howling around the program's future, players and coached insisted Tuesday and Wednesday were better.
Yet the trick remains the same, and that's translating what's done in meetings rooms, coaches' offices and practice into games.
"They're giving it their best shot," defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. "We've just got to keep coaching and coaching. There's always disappointment and you've got to forget about the disappointment, but we're going to push them through it."
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 ...