Sal Sunseri on the Vols' defense
Before the Tennessee defense has even stretched, Sal Sunseri is putting it to the test.
The Vols might not be quite physically ready for practice yet, but the new defensive coordinator rarely wastes a second installing his schemes, so he launches right into some mental conditioning.
Effectively mixing a pop quiz with a game-show lightning round, Sunseri rolls through formations, shifts, alignments and assignments one after another in a corner of the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center with his linebackers. With every
thing he's throwing at the Vols through six spring workouts, he's bound to get a few wrong answers — and Wednesday morning was no exception.
But heading into what amounts to a mid-term with the first scrimmage of camp set for Friday, UT appears to be in line for a passing grade.
"The game of football right now is a bunch of changes, strength, motions, different looks and all that," Sunseri said. "You have to give them the tough things early so they adjust to the tough things early, because when the easy things come, it makes it that much easier.
"We're going to prepare them for every situation. That's our job as coaches. We're going to get them right, and they're going to fly to the football, and they're going to know what they're supposed to do."
The Vols might not have it all down completely at this point, but that has come as no surprise to Sunseri as he takes on the transition to a defense based more around a 3-4 approach.
And there also doesn't seem to be any concern at all about the rate of progress for UT at this stage, particularly since time is still on its side with nine more workouts left before the offseason and 27 more days waiting for Sunseri in the fall. That certainly doesn't mean he's not expecting results and correct responses right away, but he's also looking to evaluate more than just how much of the playbook the Vols have absorbed.
"They've responded, they've done a lot of good things, they're trying to work hard," Sunseri said. "It's a lot of new language for them, but they have given me everything they have. I'm extremely pleased with their effort, I'm extremely pleased with the way that they're trying to come learn it. Are they going to learn it overnight? No, they're not. We're going to keep on working.
"These guys have come in here, they've bought in, they want to get better, they want to go out and play like a champion. My whole thing is if you go out and you put your product on the field and your name is on the back, I want toughness, I want discipline and I want you to act like a pro."
Having somebody who has worked with professionals as long as Sunseri did during seven years with the Carolina Panthers helps establish his credibility, and there didn't appear to be any Vols tuning him out during the mental drill early in practice.
Senior linebacker Herman Lathers even sought Sunseri out after it was over for a quick chat and clarification on a particular situation, perhaps providing an indication that the Vols have adjusted quickly to his teaching style.
"He has a very different personality, and that's why I say it's so important to listen to what is said and not how it's said," UT coach Derek Dooley said last week. "You have to learn that, and that's an important thing."
The lessons with Sunseri come quickly, whether it's adapting to the delivery of the message or the installation of his scheme. Either way, he doesn't leave a moment to waste before diving into them.