In some ways, Peter Sirmon wants his playbook to look like a treasure map.
Rather than use strong, weak or middle as his labels, the Tennessee linebackers coach prefers to have an ‘X’ mark every spot.
And anybody trying to fill out Sirmon’s rotation had better be able to know the roles at every position during film study, meetings and practice, or there won’t be any rewards on the field for them when the Vols start searching for wins this fall.
“My biggest goal is to teach concepts,” Sirmon said. “ Football is about concepts, and if you look up on the board, there’s just 11 little X’s. So, I think the more we see ‘X’ and the less we see SAM, MIKE and WILL, I think that’s when you start developing the ability to adjust on game day.
“Without conceptual learning, it’s very difficult for (defensive coordinator) Justin (Wilcox) or me to adjust during a game. If we coach it like this and we practice it like this, it becomes rote memorization. We’re trying to get out of that rote memorization and teach, this is football, this is 11 guys, some guys have to rush, some guys have to cover. It’s just a matter of identifying who is doing what on each snap.”
That can make nailing down exact titles for UT’s linebackers on the depth chart hard to do, even though there aren’t many names on it right now. Really that lack of numbers in the middle of the defense gives the cross-training of players added value for the Vols as they simply try to find their most talented options and put them on the field.
Heading into the final week of spring practice and Saturday’s Orange and White Game, that process may have hit a bit of a snag with senior Austin Johnson suffering a knee injury and junior Greg King going down with an apparent concussion, though the severity of each injury remains unknown at this point. But given the way Sirmon is approaching his first spring with the linebackers as a full-timer at UT, he should have some reserves with enough knowledge of the schemes and each of the three positions to slide in and have an idea of what they are doing.
“We’re lacking some numbers, but that doesn’t prevent us from doing what’s best for the program,” Sirmon said. “When we say cross-training, that doesn’t necessarily mean just the reps on the field. It’s in the meeting room when we’re teaching it, so I don’t think you can say he’s only taking reps at this position. Nobody is in the meeting rooms when I’m in there quizzing people on the different positions, so we feel there’s a lot of different ways to get people reps.
“Not every rep has to be taken on the field — there’s film reps, installation reps, there’s review, there’s testing, so there’s a lot of different ways to do that. It’s not always snap to whistle.”
The final exam comes between the two, though, which Sirmon certainly is aware of as a seven-year NFL veteran.
And that credibility he brings from his days with the Tennessee Titans seems to have gone a long way in helping Sirmon get his teaching methods accepted and his message across as he starts molding the Vols the way he wants.
“Coach Sirmon is a very intellectual guy,” Johnson said last week. “He played in the NFL, obviously, so we definitely look up to him and we know that he knows what it takes.
“The cross-training stuff, he wants us to know every position like it’s an ‘X,’ so that’s how we’re learning it. It makes it easier at your position if you know what the other guys are doing, so if we just keep listening to what he’s telling us, keep going out there watching film and working in practice, we should be good.”
And it should help UT find what it’s looking for at linebacker.
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.