KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley calculated the risk. It's not paid off so far for Tennessee's football coach.
The decision to change defensive systems and hire a coordinator who hadn't called plays in more than a decade has been disastrous for Dooley's crucial third season, as the Volunteers' defense is last in the Southeastern Conference in yards and points allowed through eight games.
The woes of first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri's unit were a major topic of discussion for Dooley during his usual Monday news conference, and he was asked after Tuesday morning's practice to explain the gamble he took in switching to a 3-4 scheme and hiring Sunseri to run it in January after Justin Wilcox left for the same position at Washington.
"I've never made a decision since I've been here on the next game," Dooley said. "I've always tried to make the right decision for the program long-term, and that doesn't mean you're not trying to win the short term, but I wanted to get somebody and some system that when we get this thing going, we don't want to make another change.
"Is there risk? Of course it is. Everything in our profession's risky, but you try to weigh the risks offset with some of the things you think are not risky at all, and you go with it and you don't look back."
The message Monday was that the Vols defensively are looking forward to a continued search for answers, but Tuesday Dooley rehashed his thought process in making a decision that ultimately could cost him his job. Offensively the Vols are third and fourth in the SEC in yards and points, respectively, with a handful of players who could play in the NFL, but their defense is on pace to be the worst in the program's history.
Dooley said other factors, such as familiarity and experience in the SEC and fitting philosophically, figured into his decision in addition to wanting to become more disruptive and create more of an impact on opposing offenses.
"I think there were going to be growing pains no matter who you brought in because it's new, even with a 4-3," he said. "Probably a lot less growing pains if you kept it a real simple system. Would we have been playing better? Probably so.
"You always make decisions based on what happened last, and you try to correct what happened last to make sure the same mistake doesn't happen. Usually when you do, you're presented with some new things that you didn't anticipate or hope would be there. I think it's fair to say we've had a lot more growing pains, whatever you want to call them, than we anticipated."
Byron Moore had a forgettable first half against South Carolina. On the Gamecocks' first two touchdowns, Tennessee's starting safety missed a tackle after taking a poor angle and didn't wrap up on a receiver. Though he improved as the game continued, he just missed getting a hand on South Carolina's final touchdown pass when he was a split-second late in covering a corner route against the Vols' two-deep coverage.
Fifth-year senior Rod Wilks, a regular on special teams, got some first-team work alongside freshman LaDarrell McNeil on Tuesday, but Dooley declined to hint that Moore's spot was up for grabs this week.
"Byron's been playing really good and consistent and steady," he said. "Just had a few breakdowns in the first half that hurt us on a pursuit angle, on a coverage, but he's got great character.
"It hurt him, bothered him. Played pretty good, better in the second half. He'll be fine."
After playing what Dooley called his "best game" against a quality defense, quarterback Tyler Bray's challenge is maintaining that level. He's typically has success against inferior opponents, and Troy fits the bill. The Trojans are 100th nationally in pass-efficiency defense and 62nd in total defense.
"I felt like I practiced pretty good last week, and it showed in the game," Bray said of his 368-yard, four-touchdown afternoon against the Gamecocks.
Receiver Zach Rogers said Bray's demeanor has stayed the same despite his up-and-down junior season that has brought some criticism from fans.
"It's raised a substantial amount, and we've all seen that," Rogers said when asked about Bray's leadership. "I know he's had some rough games here in the last little bit, but that hasn't fazed him at all. He's a guy with a short-term memory, and he's going to come back firing regardless of what happens.
"He's not down on himself, and we're not down on him. We still have all the confidence in the world in him, and he does in himself, too. We're still doing our hurry-up stuff, and when we see guys kind of maybe get a little slow, he's right there to pick them back up and keep moving this offense at the high pace we want to run."
Tuesday was the coldest practice of the season, but Dooley said the Vols had good energy despite "Frankestorm wreaking havoc on us," a reference to Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast.
"With the weather and everything," defensive lineman Maurice Couch added, "for a second in my opinion I thought practice was going to be down because guys were going to be freezing, But it was totally the opposite."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...