Derek Dooley previews UT vs. Missouri
For 10 weeks, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley stuck to what he knew best, offering input on offense and special teams but contributing little except "big-picture" ideas to the defense.
That changed after last week's embarrassing meltdown against Troy. In practice, film study and coaches' meetings this week, Dooley has focused exclusively on the defense.
No one knows whether the changes on display today will be dramatic or minor. But by his rhetoric this week, Dooley has made clear that the defense is now under his control.
And the first look at the defense under his control comes today (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.) when the Vols (4-5, 0-5 SEC) play Missouri (4-5, 1-5) at Neyland Stadium.
"Everything that I'm doing going forward is for one reason and that is to do what we can to give our players the best chance to beat Missouri. That is all I am really focused on," Dooley said.
Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri was diplomatic in his meeting with reporters on Wednesday, taking full responsibility for the 721 yards of total offense surrendered to Troy and refusing to blame his players. But he left open many questions about just how things would be handled differently today.
Will Sunseri call plays? He didn't address that question directly, other than to say "someone" would call plays and "nothing would change."
Will Sunseri be in the press box? It sounds like it, although Sunseri didn't say for certain. First-year safeties coach Josh Conklin is usually upstairs and he could offer greater input on play-calling while seated beside his boss.
"I've tried to make myself be more aware big-picture of what is going on, how we are putting it together, how we are structuring it," said Conklin, who was defensive coordinator at The Citadel before joining UT. "It's not anything I've been asked to do or anything like that. I'm just trying to get a better handle on how things are fitting in there from top to bottom."
Dooley hasn't just been lurking in the background, either. He promised this week to leave the offensive room, where he spent most of his time, and start spending time conferencing with the defensive coaches.
The Vols are ranked 112th of 120 teams nationally in defense. Dooley said he has no plans to act as a "guru" but simply wants to add another set of eyes.
"Obviously, there are issues on defense, a lot of issues," he said.
Missouri's offense could present more issues if the Tigers can hold onto the football. Quarterback James Franklin has returned to nearly full health from a left knee sprain and he showed flashes of his old form last week at Florida. But he also threw four interceptions and led Missouri to the end zone only once.
For as bad as Tennessee's defense was last week, the offense was phenomenal. UT quarterback Tyler Bray set a new school record for passing yards with 530, 400 of which went to receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter.
The campuses of Tennessee and Missouri are about 600 miles apart, but they are the flagship universities of border states. (Missouri and Tennessee share a roughly 40-mile border along the Mississippi River).
But if a rivalry emerges from the annual meetings between the Vols and Tigers, it won't have any history to rely on. Today will be the first time Missouri and Tennessee have ever met in football.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.