Prentiss Waggner at corner, but learning entire defense
When Sal Sunseri was announced in January as Tennessee's new defensive coordinator, the name didn't ring a bell with Prentiss Waggner.
So he did what any college student would do.
"I Googled him,'' Waggner said.
"I loved his background. I knew we were pretty much gonna have an aggressive style of defense.''
After numerous meetings and two sessions of spring practice, Waggner, a senior cornerback, has confirmed what he suspected.
It's an entirely new ballgame on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage at UT this spring. All new coaches, brand new scheme.
"It's like I'm a freshman again, pretty much,'' said safety Brian Randolph, who technically still is a freshman but will be a sophomore when the 2012 season kicks off.
The pace is set by Sunseri, a 52-year-old former All-America linebacker whom Derek Dooley hired away from Alabama to the tune of $2.4 million over three guaranteed years.
"Lot more vocal, lot more up-tempo,'' linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "When we do stuff wrong, they get on us right away. Ain't no holding back.''
Johnson was chatting with a clot of media types when — whack! — somebody smacked him in the back of the head with a folded paper.
A post-practice love tap from Sunseri.
As Dooley would say momentarily, "I've always felt like the really good coaches out there, the players know they care about 'em as people. ... You've got to prove that
off the field.''
Sunseri replaces Justin Wilcox, who after two years at UT made a lateral move to Washington and took linebackers coach Peter Sirmon with him.
Wilcox did a decent job considering UT's depleted state. The Vols ranked 28th nationally in total defense last season. Then again, that was only good for seventh place in the shark tank known as the SEC.
Dooley had a clear vision for his defense: bigger, more aggressive and in a 3-4 front. After considering several candidates Dooley chose the Alabama linebackers coach, with whom he had a history in Nick Saban's coaching tree.
"I know what the core of Sal is,'' Dooley said Tuesday morning. "I didn't have to figure him out and he didn't have to figure me out.
"And then we talk the same language on what we're doing.''
That language is Sabanese.
"He's a fiery guy,'' said Waggner. "When I see him it reminds me of Coach Chief (John Chavis), all up in your face trying to demand the most out of you.''
Like Chavis, UT's coordinator from 1995-2008, Sunseri was once defensive coordinator at Alabama A&M.
But drop the A&M. It's the link to school in Tuscaloosa that is relevant to Sunseri's new pupils.
"When I look at the Alabama defense,'' said Waggner, "I see four or five first-rounders, so anything I need or want, I'm asking a lot of questions. 'Cause they know what it takes.''
By the time spring practice ends, the Vols should have a better idea what it takes. The learning curve gets steeper today, the first practice in full pads.
"He let us know,'' said Johnson, "that they worked Alabama's tails 'til they were a top defense.
"And he's gonna work us and get us to be one of the top defenses.''
That's why Sunseri is here as one of the SEC's highest-paid assistants. Consider your tails warned.