Tennessee safeties coach Josh Conklin will be working from the press box Friday night, which means he will be safe from busted eardrums and avoid flying spittle from his boss, ultra-intense defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
Can the 27-year coaching veteran muster even more intensity in the season opener than he shows every day practice?
“I absolutely think he can,” said Conklin on Tuesday, nodding in agreement with players who said the same thing.
Sunseri, 53, has won national championships, coached future NFL stars and helped craft top-ranked defenses.
But when he walks onto the turf at the Georgia Dome for the season opener (TV: ESPNU, 7:30 p.m.) against North Carolina State, Sunseri will be coordinating his own defense for the first time in 13 years and running the show for the first time at Bowl Subdivision or Division I-A level.
Sunseri said his debut — with the Vols and as a play-caller — is unimportant. The players should be the focus.
“The kids will go out and operate,” he said. “We’ll see how they play, their enthusiasm, their energy, their intelligence.”
Sunseri isn’t the only newcomer on a coaching staff who has only two holdovers from last season.
Sunseri coaches the linebackers. Derrick Ansley, who worked with Sunseri at Alabama, handles the cornerbacks. John Palermo is in charge of the line. Conklin, who was defensive coordinator for two seasons at The Citadel before joining Tennessee’s staff, said communication was smooth during a test run in the final scrimmage.
As for working on a new staff under a new coordinator, Conklin said the first few months couldn’t have gone better.
“It’s been extremely exciting,” Conklin said. “I love (Sunseri’s) intensity and the expectations that he sets. He says, ‘Here’s the standard,’ and he challenges his team to meet that standard.”
Sunseri’s confidence comes from preparation — on the part of players and the coaching staff. The opener has gotten extra attention.
“You have to go back and study tape on (N.C. State) and see what they’ve done the last two, three years. We’ve done our homework. We’ve been here late at night. We have to call it and see what happens.”
And if the Wolfpack present unexpected wrinkles?
“You’ve got to be able to handle it on the sidelines, and then you take it from there,” Sunseri. “But we’ve put them in every situation, every grouping, every play, every surprise, so now it’s about being able to adjust. And that’s where the coaches come into the factor.”
Coaches sometimes want extra practices long after players are ready to compete in real games, but Sunseri said that he’s as ready as his team.
“Guys are tired of going against each other, and they want to go out and execute the game plan and do what they have to do,” Sunseri said. “The kids are excited. They’ve been spending a lot of time (on the game plan). They know what to do, how to do it, and why they’re doing it.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at http://twitter.com/TennesseeBeat