Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley mounted a defense of his defensive coordinator Monday that alternated between diplomacy and candor.
But he acknowledged during his weekly news conference that it was impossible to argue with the Vols' woeful numbers on the defense led by coordinator Sal Sunseri.
"We aren't going to sit here and defend anything we're doing, because statistically we can't," Dooley said.
Tennessee's defense is ranked 99th nationally (103rd against the pass, 85th against the rush) among 120 FBS teams.
The Vols (3-5) play Troy (4-4) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium (TV: FSTN, noon), one week after the season's best offensive performance put UT within
reach of an upset at South Carolina.
"I think the important thing is — and this is what I told Sal — we have to get our focus on solutions and playing better next week," Dooley said. "That's all you can put your energy on. You can't look back and beat yourself up, you can't lose confidence in what we are doing and how we are teaching it. We have to work together to find solutions as players and as coaches to play better. That's all you can put your energy on."
That was Dooley's response to the blunt question: Has Sunseri failed to effectively communicate the precepts of his new 3-4 defense to players? Dooley called it a "pretty harsh statement," and when pressed further did his best to acknowledge concern without undermining his coach.
"Let me say it this way: It's hard to say we're not having problems, given the statistics," Dooley said. "The question is, what's the problem and how do we fix it? Maybe at times we aren't communicating. Maybe at times we don't make a good call. Maybe at times the player has repped it plenty of times and he's not doing it correctly. Maybe at times we probably have the wrong guy in. I think it is a function of a lot of things. Generally, when you are statistically where we are, it's not one thing, it's everything."
Dooley has focused on the defense cutting out big plays allowed. In the first half against South Carolina, the Vols allowed nine plays of 20 yards or more. In the second half, there were only two. Generally, he said the defense has about 60 "pretty good" snaps per game and about 15 plays of "really bad defense."
He doesn't demand perfection, but he would like to see those ugly plays cut in half.
"We all have to work together — players, coaches, head coach — to lock in on how we can take those 15 plays and at least get them down to about seven," Dooley said.
Dooley has said before that his coaching expertise is on offense and special teams and so his main contribution to the defense comes in "big picture" guidance rather than X's and O's. But he said he has gotten more involved in the defense each week.
"I think the biggest thing is making sure we're all on the same page within the staff," Dooley said. "We're all in it together. It's not ego-driven. We're here to find solutions to help the players play the best they can."
News conferences aren't the only setting in which Dooley is trying to explain the team's struggles. Dooley said he meets regularly with athletic director Dave Hart.
"We talk every week, more than once a week," Dooley said. "Dave has been great, very professional. He obviously wants to know my take on where we are, what we're doing well and what we aren't doing well and how we're going to fix it."
What does he tell him?
"A lot of what I've told you guys," Dooley said. "Our dialogue is good."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.