James Stone and Ja'Wuan James on the Vanderbilt matchup
Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2012 // Buy this photo
For Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, the days begin early. By the time he leaves the football complex, it's almost midnight. His only time at home is spent catching a few winks before rising and starting over again.
Sunseri's arrival 10 months ago was supposed to represent a home-run hire and a triumphant promotion for Sunseri, 53, a veteran position coach who hadn't been a coordinator since 1999.
Instead, Sunseri has faced the brunt of the criticism for a historically bad defense and some of his authority has been diminished in the wake of changes made by head coach Derek Dooley.
In two weeks, it's very likely that Sunseri's brief stint in Knoxville will be over, and he'll be looking for another job.
"Nothing's going to change," Sunseri said. "We work right now for the University of Tennessee. We're going to work every single day. I've been here every morning at 5:30 and haven't left until 11 o'clock at night. That's what we do."
The Vols (4-6, 0-6 SEC) play at Vanderbilt (6-4, 4-3) on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m.).
Sunseri signed a three-year deal when he was hired and would be owed roughly $1.84 million if he is fired after the season. That amount would be defrayed by the salary he receives if he is hired at another school.
But "right now," as Sunseri said, he's still working for Tennessee and trying to build on the modest progress made last week against Missouri.
The Vols allowed only 64 yards in the first half, overcame a 77-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half and generally played well before breaking down at the end of regulation and in overtime.
Tennessee moved up one spot from 112th to 111th nationally (out of 120 Bowl Subdivision teams), a modest sign of a progress for a season in which the defense has seemed to get progressively worse each week.
Sunseri coached from the press box Saturday as part of game day changes instituted by Dooley. It was the first time Sunseri worked from upstairs this season, but where he spent each Saturday for the past seven before coming to Tennessee.
"I was very comfortable upstairs," Sunseri said. "You are able to see more, see exactly what they are doing and get the personnel in there. It was nice and clean and it was comfortable. It was where I have been."
Sunseri also was seated beside safeties coach Josh Conklin, who appears to have taken a more active role in the defense during the past week and a half.
The changes have been noticeable even in practice. On Tuesday, for example, Sunseri worked alone with three linebackers while Conklin and other coaches supervised the larger unit going over plays with the scout team.
Defensive graduate assistant Brandon Staley signaled in the plays from the sidelines on Saturday.
"We were getting the calls in, (players) were executing it fast and it was a good tempo," Sunseri said. "I thought Brandon Staley did a heck of a job of getting the calls from me and getting them in to the kids. The kids worked all last week on making sure everybody's eyes are on the signal-caller and the kids executed it. They did a nice job."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.