Mike Strange: Communication issue preferable to talent issue for Vols' defense

Mike Strange
Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri calls to his coaching staff during the Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium Saturday, April 21, 2012. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer, copyright © 2012

Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri calls to his coaching staff during the Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium Saturday, April 21, 2012. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

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The first order of business for Tennessee's defense this week is determining whether or not there is a communication problem.

After Florida's late eruption mushroomed its offensive total to 555 yards last Saturday night, coach Derek Dooley said:

"Give Florida credit. They created a lot of communication breakdowns.''

Earlier this week, discussing an 80-yard touchdown run by Florida's Trey Burton in the Wildcat formation, linebacker Herman Lathers chimed in:

"Some guys just didn't get the check.''

On Wednesday, however, defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri vowed:

"There is no communication issue.''

Furthermore, said Sunseri, "Everybody can have their excuses and all that other (animal-generated fertilizer) that they want. The bottom line is we didn't execute what we had to do.''

This we know: Tennessee's 77th-ranked defense, allowing 408 yards per game, has some issues to correct.

Whether they are communication issues depends on who's doing the communicating.

My guess? Everybody's really on the same page. It's more semantics than disagreement.

Call it communication or call it fundamentals. Call some of it both.

In fact, Dooley did.

"Sometimes it's a communication issue,'' he said, "and sometimes it's fundamental football.''

Whatever, it falls under the heading of growing pains.

Every member of UT's defensive staff is new from last year. Sunseri was hired away from Alabama to install a 3-4 scheme and make the Vols more aggressive and disruptive.

To become more aggressive and disruptive generally requires becoming more complicated. There's the rub.

"In this defense,'' said Sunseri, "we're not gonna be vanilla and sit in that one front. That's not what this is all about.

"It's a growing process. When you're growing, you always have pains.''

Pains translate to chunk plays for the other guys.

Against North Carolina State in the opener, most of the chunks came early. Then the Vols settled in and effectively disrupted the Wolfpack with four interceptions and a sack/fumble.

Against Florida, the chunks came late rather than early. And, boy, were they huge chunks. An 80-yard TD; a 45-yard run to set up a TD; a 75-yard TD pass.

"We played darn good football for about three quarters,'' said Sunseri, "and then we had about eight or nine plays where it just went to (Tierra Del Fuego). That can't happen.''

The severity of growing pains inflicted by Florida generates discussion as to whether simplifying the defense might be a good idea. At least until some guys get more up to speed.

"We're gonna do what we have to do to win,'' said Sunseri, "and that's have enough calls in there to stop people.''

It would probably be a mistake to assume there won't be more growing pains Saturday night, even against 35-point underdog Akron,

The Zips might be easy pickings for Tennessee's offense, but Sunseri's guys will have their hands full getting off the field against a fast-paced offense that averages 88 plays a game.

But adjustments, communication, fundamentals, all those issues are correctable on the practice field.

And that's the preferable scenario.

Whether the Vols have enough talent, depth and speed, those issues can only be corrected through recruiting.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 36

Classof72 writes:

"We're gonna do what we have to do to win," said Sunseri, "and that's have enough calls in there to stop people."

Yep; If we hadn't had so many calls, we might not have won the game...Oh, that's right. Never mind.

Better call the Ghostbsters! Or, better yet, call some recruits!

DeltaCharlie3 writes:

In the immortal words of Muhammad Ali:

"was it close before I knocked him out?"

Close for three quarters is irrelevant.

Rich_Is_Re-born writes:

I think everyone underestimates the job Wilcox did while he was here. The defense last year ranked 28th nationally while being stuck on the field for the entire game nearly every game. Not to mention he did it with a D-Line averaging about 265lbs. I'm not knocking Sal. I think they've shown flashes of being very good this season. What we are seeing is normal when transforming from the 4-3 to the 3-4.

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to DeltaCharlie3:

In the immortal words of Muhammad Ali:

"was it close before I knocked him out?"

Close for three quarters is irrelevant.

I disagree, UF is still a little better than UT, not at the skill positions, but the DL and OL..UT made some strides, but they were pushed around in the 4th Qtr, and Sal knows what to do..Don't come out and berate the talent difference and kill his teams confidence, he's tweaking the communication problems (wink wink)..GBO!!

Rich_Is_Re-born writes:

Oh yeah, one more thing. ALL this talk about how good Eric Gordon is at the "star" position which is in the Nickel formation. Problem is...they don't run the Nickel every play. Why not toss 10's arse to the pine and have Gordon in at CB...which would have him in ALL the time. You can't tell me #10 is better than Eric Gordon. Gordon is faster, FAR FAR more physical, and has a nose for the ball. He takes chances sometimes and it doesn't always work for him. But his aggressiveness does work for him more than not, and is sorely needed in the defensive backfield.

BigVolinCarolina writes:

I knew when we switched from a traditional 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme this season that there would be an adjustment period with some growing pains; however, I didn't expect that all 4 of Florida's TD's would be the result of confusion (placement or scheme), which it was.

Tough to watch, for sure.

99gator writes:

i understand that everyone has a system and that people run their system because that's who they are.

however, sunseri needs to tone down the blitzing. the secondary is slow and god awful. they need to recognize this because florida is not a downfield passing offense.

waggner got beat on a corner route by a tight end. i'm not going to mention teague.

tennessee gave up a lot of big ones last year (run and pass) and it's happening again this year.

for the 2nd year in a row, florida completed a five yard pass or less and it went 75 yards plus. both were on blown coverages, but a blown coverage 5 yards downfield should not turn into a touchdown

on burton's run, at the end of the play when burton reaches the end zone two guys end up showing up in the screen (byron moore and jeff driskel). that's right, driskel

contrary to popular opinion, this is not a florida team blessed with speed outside of andre debose and soloman patton.

so, they can say what they want about communication, but once a guy breaks loose there need to be athletes to make a play. tennessee doesn't have them.

i guarantee frankie hammond and trey burton don't see the end zone if eric berry had been on the field

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

in response to Rich_Is_Re-born:

Oh yeah, one more thing. ALL this talk about how good Eric Gordon is at the "star" position which is in the Nickel formation. Problem is...they don't run the Nickel every play. Why not toss 10's arse to the pine and have Gordon in at CB...which would have him in ALL the time. You can't tell me #10 is better than Eric Gordon. Gordon is faster, FAR FAR more physical, and has a nose for the ball. He takes chances sometimes and it doesn't always work for him. But his aggressiveness does work for him more than not, and is sorely needed in the defensive backfield.

Agreed, Gordon reminds me of Dale Carter..He's liable to give up a big play or make one, while Teague only gives up big plays..

eb502us#225637 writes:

Sunseri sound like Obama. Lie to your face and assume everyone is stupid enough to believe it. Unfortunately, too many do or just don't care because they are getting something for nothing.

The breakdowns are obvious as players generally aren't still pointing after the ball is snapped. I'm patient enough to understand there will be breakdowns on defense, but hearing Sunseri try to cover it up is disturbing.

Respect is earned by telling the truth, at least Dooley understands that by not trying to feed us the same line.

zigvol writes:

How Many wins do you guys think we will get? I say 7. Just curious to see what everyone else is thinking. Go Big Orange!!!

iowavol writes:

I'm not sure I'm liking Sunseri's attitude or approach. Appears he is blaming the players for not learning what he is teaching. Regardless, what happened on the field half way through the 3rd quarter - or really for the end of the second quarter and start of the 3rd quarter too except for good goal line defense - was the most pathetic a defense has looked at Tennessee in quite some time. This is not a good Fla team we should have beaten. But they looked good against us. Not Sunseri is the answers.

hikerdude writes:

in response to zigvol:

How Many wins do you guys think we will get? I say 7. Just curious to see what everyone else is thinking. Go Big Orange!!!

I said 7-5 before the season started and I don't see any reason to change that.

BillsBrother writes:

All new defensive staff...All new defensive scheme...I like the agressiveness, but the defense will give up more big plays this season.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2f-MZ...

agohn writes:

in response to DeltaCharlie3:

In the immortal words of Muhammad Ali:

"was it close before I knocked him out?"

Close for three quarters is irrelevant.

And there's dbag Florida fan again with dbag advice. Way to go dbag. Your insight on sports is so great, I don't understand why you haven't been picked up as a coach. Dbag coach of the year should definitely go to you.

hueypilot writes:

Perhaps you couldn't see it on TV, but in person, this wholesale swapping of D lines makes little sense to me. A guy the size of Stentimore or McCullers jogs from the sideline to the far hash for one play then jogs back. Wouldn't they be just as rested to leave them in place for 30 seconds? Often if the ref hadn't been standing over the ball, Florida was ready to go and we were still swapping personnel. Sorry but all of Sunseri's scheming and swapping players seems to be more confusing than helpful, particulaly when our outside containment was so poor on the long plays and LB play was supposed to be a strong suit. Bad angles, getting caught inside, no safety to shut the back door for a long play. I think all those things are more scheme and coaching than execution. Good teams don't give up a pile of long plays. Great teams (Alabama and LSU for instance) don't give up any.

orangepeel writes:

Tennessee made the same mistake on defense against Fla that they made against NC State. There has been no improvement and that is the coaches fault.

jschariter#367312 writes:

Plain and simple, Florida had better athletes on the field. Same trend as last year, in the game for awhile, then they fold. Tn has recruited at the 50 yard line at best in the SEC over the past three years, so our young players on average are not as good as half the league's young players. Although Bray has look good at times his only wins against SEC competition is Old Miss, 2 wins against Vandy, and he is 500 against Kentucky. Going back to last year Tn is 1 and 8 in the SEC. Not looking much better with Ga, S Carolina upcoming. If they lose at Miss State, the season is going to be pretty grim.

usafvol writes:

in response to hueypilot:

Perhaps you couldn't see it on TV, but in person, this wholesale swapping of D lines makes little sense to me. A guy the size of Stentimore or McCullers jogs from the sideline to the far hash for one play then jogs back. Wouldn't they be just as rested to leave them in place for 30 seconds? Often if the ref hadn't been standing over the ball, Florida was ready to go and we were still swapping personnel. Sorry but all of Sunseri's scheming and swapping players seems to be more confusing than helpful, particulaly when our outside containment was so poor on the long plays and LB play was supposed to be a strong suit. Bad angles, getting caught inside, no safety to shut the back door for a long play. I think all those things are more scheme and coaching than execution. Good teams don't give up a pile of long plays. Great teams (Alabama and LSU for instance) don't give up any.

Hey azzbreath; nobody on here cares about what any fla douche has to say. You won; sounds like about the biggest thing thats happened to you in a while.

Vol-in-GA writes:

in response to 99gator:

i understand that everyone has a system and that people run their system because that's who they are.

however, sunseri needs to tone down the blitzing. the secondary is slow and god awful. they need to recognize this because florida is not a downfield passing offense.

waggner got beat on a corner route by a tight end. i'm not going to mention teague.

tennessee gave up a lot of big ones last year (run and pass) and it's happening again this year.

for the 2nd year in a row, florida completed a five yard pass or less and it went 75 yards plus. both were on blown coverages, but a blown coverage 5 yards downfield should not turn into a touchdown

on burton's run, at the end of the play when burton reaches the end zone two guys end up showing up in the screen (byron moore and jeff driskel). that's right, driskel

contrary to popular opinion, this is not a florida team blessed with speed outside of andre debose and soloman patton.

so, they can say what they want about communication, but once a guy breaks loose there need to be athletes to make a play. tennessee doesn't have them.

i guarantee frankie hammond and trey burton don't see the end zone if eric berry had been on the field

Well put sir.

Tennfan4075 writes:

"Whether the Vols have enough talent, depth and speed, those issues can only be corrected through recruiting."

There's that word again, (recruiting) every body's talking about it, but no body's doing anything about it.

Judging from the results at Alabama and LSU 4 and 5 star players must communicate better than 1 and 2 star players, you think?

Tennfan4075 writes:

in response to eb502us#225637:

Sunseri sound like Obama. Lie to your face and assume everyone is stupid enough to believe it. Unfortunately, too many do or just don't care because they are getting something for nothing.

The breakdowns are obvious as players generally aren't still pointing after the ball is snapped. I'm patient enough to understand there will be breakdowns on defense, but hearing Sunseri try to cover it up is disturbing.

Respect is earned by telling the truth, at least Dooley understands that by not trying to feed us the same line.

I guess since the Vols have sucked for the past 4 years you can blame the President for that as well. Might as well get used to Obama because he will be around for 4 more.

AlpharettaVol writes:

in response to Rich_Is_Re-born:

Oh yeah, one more thing. ALL this talk about how good Eric Gordon is at the "star" position which is in the Nickel formation. Problem is...they don't run the Nickel every play. Why not toss 10's arse to the pine and have Gordon in at CB...which would have him in ALL the time. You can't tell me #10 is better than Eric Gordon. Gordon is faster, FAR FAR more physical, and has a nose for the ball. He takes chances sometimes and it doesn't always work for him. But his aggressiveness does work for him more than not, and is sorely needed in the defensive backfield.

If I'm not mistaken, Teague played another position in high school (QB?). Now after a couple of years it's become obvious that he just doesn't have the instincts or the skills to play defense. And, he's a terrible tackler. He seems like a terrific young man but the coaches need to find another position for him to play.

Rich_Is_Re-born writes:

in response to AlpharettaVol:

If I'm not mistaken, Teague played another position in high school (QB?). Now after a couple of years it's become obvious that he just doesn't have the instincts or the skills to play defense. And, he's a terrible tackler. He seems like a terrific young man but the coaches need to find another position for him to play.

He came here to play WR and looked to have a very promising career there. Wonderboy moved him to DB and it's been downhill since. I almost think its pride that keeps Dooley from benching him. Eric Gordon isn't all American, but anyone with a brain can see he's better. At this point we need our best players on the field.

Sir_Spanky writes:

Split hairs all you want... Bottom line: Players were out-played, coaches were out-coached.

Ayres_Hall writes:

in response to Sir_Spanky:

Split hairs all you want... Bottom line: Players were out-played, coaches were out-coached.

Explain the outcoached part, o' brilliant football analyst?

Did the Gator coaches wait until the 3:50 mark in the 3rd qtr to make their game changing calls? Or was it at 2:03 mark in the 4th qtr?

We lead the score and the total yardage count until then. When their superior players made plays and ours, Hunter and Patterson both dropped critical passes, did not.

But please, go on with your analysis.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to Rich_Is_Re-born:

Oh yeah, one more thing. ALL this talk about how good Eric Gordon is at the "star" position which is in the Nickel formation. Problem is...they don't run the Nickel every play. Why not toss 10's arse to the pine and have Gordon in at CB...which would have him in ALL the time. You can't tell me #10 is better than Eric Gordon. Gordon is faster, FAR FAR more physical, and has a nose for the ball. He takes chances sometimes and it doesn't always work for him. But his aggressiveness does work for him more than not, and is sorely needed in the defensive backfield.

100% agree..If teagues performance Saturday doesn't deserve a demotion I don't know what does..Even a HS player would have known better than to try to tackle Burton high..If your the last line of defense in the open field you go for the legs...Teague looked like a kicker trying to make a tackle

Rich_Is_Re-born writes:

in response to Ayres_Hall:

Explain the outcoached part, o' brilliant football analyst?

Did the Gator coaches wait until the 3:50 mark in the 3rd qtr to make their game changing calls? Or was it at 2:03 mark in the 4th qtr?

We lead the score and the total yardage count until then. When their superior players made plays and ours, Hunter and Patterson both dropped critical passes, did not.

But please, go on with your analysis.

You seem to be a pretty smart guy so I don't want this to turn to an all out argument. A part of what you say holds truth. Individual players not making plays does require a certain level of accountability on their part IMO. However, when you tally up all of the mistakes.....dropped passes, busted coverages, abandoning the run, erratic QB play, penalties knocking us out of scoring range MULTIPLE TIMES, zero kicking game, continual second half let downs/adjustments.....it wreaks of a totally dysfunctional situation, JMO. And that starts at the top.

Rich_Is_Re-born writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

100% agree..If teagues performance Saturday doesn't deserve a demotion I don't know what does..Even a HS player would have known better than to try to tackle Burton high..If your the last line of defense in the open field you go for the legs...Teague looked like a kicker trying to make a tackle

You might be on to something....can he kick?

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to eb502us#225637:

Sunseri sound like Obama. Lie to your face and assume everyone is stupid enough to believe it. Unfortunately, too many do or just don't care because they are getting something for nothing.

The breakdowns are obvious as players generally aren't still pointing after the ball is snapped. I'm patient enough to understand there will be breakdowns on defense, but hearing Sunseri try to cover it up is disturbing.

Respect is earned by telling the truth, at least Dooley understands that by not trying to feed us the same line.

Not sure I get your post; Sal answered the question with no excuse..And why in the world would players be pointing after the ball is snapped

TNFaninFL writes:

in response to Rich_Is_Re-born:

Oh yeah, one more thing. ALL this talk about how good Eric Gordon is at the "star" position which is in the Nickel formation. Problem is...they don't run the Nickel every play. Why not toss 10's arse to the pine and have Gordon in at CB...which would have him in ALL the time. You can't tell me #10 is better than Eric Gordon. Gordon is faster, FAR FAR more physical, and has a nose for the ball. He takes chances sometimes and it doesn't always work for him. But his aggressiveness does work for him more than not, and is sorely needed in the defensive backfield.

I agree totally on moving Eric Gordon in at the corner in place of Teague. He has shown that he is a ballhawk, let's see if he can tackle as Teague has shown that he does not like to wrap people up.

VolzsFan writes:

McCullers at the pre game meal. Now this is communication.

"You gonna eat your cornbread?"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmMT0Z...

Rich_Is_Re-born writes:

in response to TNFaninFL:

I agree totally on moving Eric Gordon in at the corner in place of Teague. He has shown that he is a ballhawk, let's see if he can tackle as Teague has shown that he does not like to wrap people up.

Justin Coleman will be starting over Teague this week. Let's hope he can get it done, he has the talent just needs reps. I don't understand the deal with Gordon. He's experienced, makes plays, he stuck thru some tough times with this program. I think he more than deserves it.

eb502us#225637 writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

Not sure I get your post; Sal answered the question with no excuse..And why in the world would players be pointing after the ball is snapped

Go watch a replay and then you'll see what I'm talking about.

hueypilot writes:

in response to usafvol:

Hey azzbreath; nobody on here cares about what any fla douche has to say. You won; sounds like about the biggest thing thats happened to you in a while.

What in the name of all that's holy makes you think from my post or any of the hundreds of other posts I've made, that I am a "fla douche"? "I won?" I thought they drug tested in the AF. Or maybe it's just booze. At any rate, just because I am critical of the Vols, who I have supported with my emotions, funds and attendance, doesn't mean I'm an opponent. Maybe you oughta adjust your filter just a little, you arrogant p@#$k.

woodwr#217203 writes:

in response to Rich_Is_Re-born:

I think everyone underestimates the job Wilcox did while he was here. The defense last year ranked 28th nationally while being stuck on the field for the entire game nearly every game. Not to mention he did it with a D-Line averaging about 265lbs. I'm not knocking Sal. I think they've shown flashes of being very good this season. What we are seeing is normal when transforming from the 4-3 to the 3-4.

Defensive coordinator is not learned easily or quickly from coaching a position or two.

Coordinated defense is tough to assemble with position coaches who haven't worked together.

This UT defense was eaten up by Akron and by Georgia State, especially passing and especially on third down.

Our best hope is that UT defense improves in time to beat four SEC opponents this year.

If Tennessee can't improve fast enough on defense, recruiting will doom the staff, and we'll be back to 2008 or 2010 again.

utfan2121 writes:

Lets tell it like it is, Florida was a better team than us at that time. Had we played them a week or 2 later I think we would probably have won as long as the receivers didn't drop a couple touchdown passes.

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