Sal Sunseri's lesson plan catching on

Mental drill part of learning new scheme

Sal Sunseri on the Vols' defense

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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.

Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.

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Comments » 23

KJVol writes:

Coach Sal Sunseri is Groovy!!

Dougb-VFL writes:

I believe this year's defense will be so much improved that we will be able to compete with the SEC for 4 quarters and not just 2 like last season.Our offense is going to be top notch in my opinion so if our special teams improve we will probably win the east! Love the coaching additions. VFL

Dalton writes:

We got something special here...this is a coach who will have his charges ramped up and playing smart but with abandon...other teams will see the secret juice that the Bama D has had the past few years was being taught...Smart is great no doubt but Coach Sal will be missed in Tuscaloosa!

TitanandVolfan4life writes:

I love everything I'm hearing about CSS and he knows the D as well as anyone in the game.

I caution people not to OVERexpect because switching to the 3-4 isn't a easy or fast thing to do and even in the NFL it normally takes at least 2 years to get everything down pat.

There's so many schemes and blitz packages to learn and to play fast and loose like we need to play will take more time than most people understand.

CDD has always wanted to switch to the 3-4 but he had to get more of the right types of players and the right coaches before he could switch and now we begin the change that will once again having the D of Tennessee feared by every team across the line from us just like what AlaBummer had last season.

2 more years and CDD will have us consistently competing for the SEC East every year and we'll all love being back on top and back in the national rankings.

VFL...GBO!!!

pingkr62 writes:

Coach Sunseri sounds something like Mike Leech without the goofiness. A defensive mad scientist,sort of. The more I read, the better I like. If Tennessee can pull out a win against N.C.State, This could be a VERY good year. I can hardly wait until late August. G.B.O.!!!

hueypilot writes:

in response to TitanandVolfan4life:

I love everything I'm hearing about CSS and he knows the D as well as anyone in the game.

I caution people not to OVERexpect because switching to the 3-4 isn't a easy or fast thing to do and even in the NFL it normally takes at least 2 years to get everything down pat.

There's so many schemes and blitz packages to learn and to play fast and loose like we need to play will take more time than most people understand.

CDD has always wanted to switch to the 3-4 but he had to get more of the right types of players and the right coaches before he could switch and now we begin the change that will once again having the D of Tennessee feared by every team across the line from us just like what AlaBummer had last season.

2 more years and CDD will have us consistently competing for the SEC East every year and we'll all love being back on top and back in the national rankings.

VFL...GBO!!!

With all due respect Sal and the rest of these guys don't have the luxury of a couple of years. They'll need to show an improvement over last year. Not world beaters but that they can be competitive which they were not at all last year.

ornglovinyankealum writes:

Sal is going to do it. He was a 1st team All American at Pitt and was an undersized linebacker draft choice of the Steelers, who have had a few signature linebackers. Unfortunately, he suffered a career ending injury before he could show his talents. How we got him away from Alabama, I'll never know.

VolinCalif writes:

in response to Dougb-VFL:

I believe this year's defense will be so much improved that we will be able to compete with the SEC for 4 quarters and not just 2 like last season.Our offense is going to be top notch in my opinion so if our special teams improve we will probably win the east! Love the coaching additions. VFL

I love your attitude. 9-3 plus a bowl, could be better.

gc_scvol writes:

in response to One_And_7:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

You seem to have STUMBLED on to the wrong website again. But, being an Alabubba fan, somebody probably has to log you on, and they keep tricking you.

Bubba_Knows writes:

in response to Dougb-VFL:

I believe this year's defense will be so much improved that we will be able to compete with the SEC for 4 quarters and not just 2 like last season.Our offense is going to be top notch in my opinion so if our special teams improve we will probably win the east! Love the coaching additions. VFL

In fairness, there were depth issues last year on defense. Also, when Tyler Bray went down the offense was TERRIBLE which kept the defense with little depth on the field too long.

VolnPickwick writes:

in response to Dougb-VFL:

I believe this year's defense will be so much improved that we will be able to compete with the SEC for 4 quarters and not just 2 like last season.Our offense is going to be top notch in my opinion so if our special teams improve we will probably win the east! Love the coaching additions. VFL

I certainly hope you are right but this kind of talk coupled with a win over Cincy last year put our expectations way too high. We must remember that our players are still young and the whole coaching staff has been revamped, we do have a lot more experience than in the last two years but we will be adjusting to a new defense again, Sal is the fourth DC in five years, not trying to rain on any ones parade, but lets be realistic. Look for solid improvement in fundamentals, blocking, tackling, protecting the football. All of these "little things" tell a huge story. If CDD holds on another year then he will have all his own players, and then we will know what he can do after four recruiting classes, no more excuses.Go Dooley! Go Vols!

orangeman1 writes:

in response to VolnPickwick:

I certainly hope you are right but this kind of talk coupled with a win over Cincy last year put our expectations way too high. We must remember that our players are still young and the whole coaching staff has been revamped, we do have a lot more experience than in the last two years but we will be adjusting to a new defense again, Sal is the fourth DC in five years, not trying to rain on any ones parade, but lets be realistic. Look for solid improvement in fundamentals, blocking, tackling, protecting the football. All of these "little things" tell a huge story. If CDD holds on another year then he will have all his own players, and then we will know what he can do after four recruiting classes, no more excuses.Go Dooley! Go Vols!

No more excuses NOW. Not next year. And thats not coming from a fans perspective. Thats coming from the AD(Dooley's boss). We have experience, depth, and we'll find out if we have the coaches that know what to do with come fall.

Bubba_Knows writes:

in response to VolnPickwick:

I certainly hope you are right but this kind of talk coupled with a win over Cincy last year put our expectations way too high. We must remember that our players are still young and the whole coaching staff has been revamped, we do have a lot more experience than in the last two years but we will be adjusting to a new defense again, Sal is the fourth DC in five years, not trying to rain on any ones parade, but lets be realistic. Look for solid improvement in fundamentals, blocking, tackling, protecting the football. All of these "little things" tell a huge story. If CDD holds on another year then he will have all his own players, and then we will know what he can do after four recruiting classes, no more excuses.Go Dooley! Go Vols!

That Cincy win was actually kind of impressive last year. Cincy was pretty good and destroyed NC State (our first opponent this year)after we beat them. With a healthy Bray, Hunter, and Rogers, I believe we can move the chains and that will rest the defense. That's always a good thing late in the game. Everyone knows it was the 2nd half when our defense looked worn out. Not having the quality depth and being on the field too long was the reason why they couldn't hang in the 2nd half last season. The offense needs to be able to move the chains and move the ball on the ground to eat up clock and rest the defense. This is the biggest issue I see.

govols1981 writes:

cant wait to see this defense this fall.

NeylandWest writes:

in response to hueypilot:

With all due respect Sal and the rest of these guys don't have the luxury of a couple of years. They'll need to show an improvement over last year. Not world beaters but that they can be competitive which they were not at all last year.

Agreed. I'm so tired of talk. Honestly, I'd be just fine if they closed practices, busted their tails like quiet professionals and let their body of work in action do their talking.

AllVol1 writes:

in response to hueypilot:

With all due respect Sal and the rest of these guys don't have the luxury of a couple of years. They'll need to show an improvement over last year. Not world beaters but that they can be competitive which they were not at all last year.

With anyone who is looking for marked improvement over last year, I am in full agreement. CDD has stressed that he wants to win NOW not later. So, it doesn't matter if it is switching offensive or defensive schemes, these coaches are supposed to be fielding the most competitive team possible. I am thinking our defense, overall ranked 28th last year, should be in the top 15 this year and able to compete 4 quarters. We have the bodies, the talent, and the depth. If going 3-4 is a step back, then don't do it. If you are going to do it, then it better show improvement.

And for what it's worth, I think our personnel is much better suited for the 3-4.

givehim6 writes:

in response to One_And_7:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

There are two things in your post that sounds right. CSS would be a good HC some day, and if it is at UT I sure he would be good at it. But by thanksgiving? I'm sure if CDD was not canned last year eaely he will not this year. Yes you are right no team can duplicate Bamas luck last year to be beat in a conference than be luck enough to play the same team for the NC, yes never will happen again.

Caspian writes:

in response to Bubba_Knows:

That Cincy win was actually kind of impressive last year. Cincy was pretty good and destroyed NC State (our first opponent this year)after we beat them. With a healthy Bray, Hunter, and Rogers, I believe we can move the chains and that will rest the defense. That's always a good thing late in the game. Everyone knows it was the 2nd half when our defense looked worn out. Not having the quality depth and being on the field too long was the reason why they couldn't hang in the 2nd half last season. The offense needs to be able to move the chains and move the ball on the ground to eat up clock and rest the defense. This is the biggest issue I see.

Here's something I've never understood. People always talk about the danger of leaving your defense on the field too long and having them get tired. Gotta be able to rest the defense, etc. So, my question is, is it only possible to get tired on defense? Does defense take more effort than offense? If the defense is on the field 70% of the time, then the other team's offense is also on the field 70% of the time. Isn't that going to wear the other team's offense out? It seems like a wash to me. Can somebody explain that to me?

VolGrad writes:

in response to Caspian:

Here's something I've never understood. People always talk about the danger of leaving your defense on the field too long and having them get tired. Gotta be able to rest the defense, etc. So, my question is, is it only possible to get tired on defense? Does defense take more effort than offense? If the defense is on the field 70% of the time, then the other team's offense is also on the field 70% of the time. Isn't that going to wear the other team's offense out? It seems like a wash to me. Can somebody explain that to me?

Let's see. The goal of the offense and what drives their momentum and energy is driving down the field, converting 3rd downs and scoring. The offense knows what it wants to do and does its best to execute it. Picking up 1st down after 1st down re-energizes the offense while deflating the defense, especially on a 3rd down and long play. The defense gets its energy and momentum by stopping the offense. It has to read what the offense may be setting up to do and react to that. Outside of dialing up a few blitzes, the defense is pretty much reactionary. When it fails to stop the offense time and again, the physical toil which is already more because the nature of its task increases with the psychological toil of failing to obtain its objective again and again. Now the only way to reverse that is to subject the offense to a few 3 and outs back to back. That begins to affect the offense's mentality when they take the field the next time to start pressing, and they can tend to make even more mistakes.

Reducing all this to simply the physical factor is one dimensional. We all know how much easier it is to do any job when we are being successful at it. We probably all know how difficult that same job is when we can't seem to catch a break.

Go Vols! Keep grinding!!!

SeminaryVol writes:

Play hard. Compete and hustle for 4 quarters. No crappy false bravado stuff and no excuses. Do that and win or lose Vol Nation will get behind this team.

wilsonorange writes:

Like Sal Sunseri can do anything with the wasteland left behind by the bad decisions of the last 4 years. Our talent level is at about the MTSU or Troy level right now, and unless the Raging Dool shows something different, we will be like this for about 3 more years while a new coach moves in. Please get the next one right, Mr. Hart.

wilsonorange writes:

in response to orangesheep:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

RashaadSalabeb writes:

Coach Sunseri will show us the way! Hit hard and wrap up! It's as simple as that! Go Vols! Let's play some in your face football for a change! Let the offense look for each one of you when they get to the line of scrimmage. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Let's see some Shock and Awl! this year!

Rocky Top, Baby!

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