Sal Sunseri laid blame for Tennessee's well-documented defensive struggles at his own feet Wednesday when Sunseri spoke with media following Tennessee's morning practice.
Tennessee ranks around 100th of the 120 Football Bowls Subdivision teams in both total defense and scoring defense through eight games, which has seen the Vols compile a 3-5 ledger and sit tied for last place in the SEC's Eastern Division.
"It's just too much. It is too much. It goes back to coaching," said Sunseri, UT's first-year defensive coordinator who joined the program amidst much acclaim following a stint as assistant head coach at Alabama. "I have to put them in better position to make plays, so I will take responsibility on that. Then we have to go out and execute the calls.
"We are giving up too many points. We have to get tighter coverage, we have to get a better pass rush, we have to do everything right."
Statistically speaking, the Vols have done very little right on defense. They've allowed 50 plays this season of 20-plus yards --- 1,707 yards in sum --- and already have allowed as many points in eight games as they did throughout all of last season. The switch from a 4-3 base defense to Sunseri's preferred 3-4 also has been a more difficult process, according to head coach Derek Dooley.
Sunseri said Wednesday he was not surprised by the lingering big-play problems but added that it must get fixed.
"It's a challenge no matter what you do in life," Sunseri said. "You come out here and have high expectations and I have to make these guys better.
"The defensive staff has to make the guys better, and they have to go out as a collective group --- coaches, players and all that --- and we have to work together to get this thing right."
Safeties coach Josh Conklin, a former coordinator whom Dooley said has gotten an increased role for input as the season has unfolded, said the coaches have reexamined every aspect of the defense and its implementation.
"You know, that's kind of the reoccurring question that we've had over and over again. I think we are and I think we do," Conklin said when asked if he believed the defense was closer to putting together a complete performance. "I think as a coaching staff and as position coaches, you keep going back and taking a look at how you're teaching things and how you're communicating things. I told the position group today: I don't think any player goes out there and wants to be bad. They don't want to mess up. So you put some accountability on the player, but you also put some accountability on how are we teaching it, how are we communicating and it sounds a little bit repetitive, but how can we clean it up for them and keep it, not simple, but clean I guess is maybe a better word.
"I think they want to go out there and make plays. But I think there's at times some stuff that's in their minds. But it's cleaning up, especially for the older guys and it's getting cleaner. And we've done a better job over the weeks of making it cleaner for them as far as being able to play, react, and go make plays and play at the speed they can go make plays at."
Sunseri added that the Vols must fix their big-play problems but also said there was nothing that could be done about it.
"There are no surprises in football," said Sunseri. "You don't want them to happen, but they happen. There is nothing we can do about it. We just have to try to fix it, that is as simple as it can be.
"To answer your question, you would like to see it be minimal."
Both true freshman LaDarrell McNeil and fifth-year senior Rod Wilks are among the players making strides in the Vols' secondary.
McNeil has emerged as a consistent starter for the Vols and has positioned himself for potential Freshman All-SEC honors. Conklin said McNeil has done so because of his extra investment in being a good football player.
"You know, I am and I'm not," Conklin said when asked if he was surprised by McNeil's rapid ascension. "I'm not because I know the type of football player he is. I know he's spent a lot of individual time with me up in the meeting rooms. And I've said this before: I've got some confidence in my ability to coach, and I can get him right if he's willing to put the time in, invest the time in it. He's been willing to do that. He keeps putting the time in and he's accelerated at a real quick pace, and that's going to help us in the future."
McNeil has adopted the habit of meeting Conklin in the hours preceding the Vols' early-morning practices. It isn't rare to find the rookie safety from Dallas in Conklin's office before 7.
"He is (in the office early). I think it is rare to see that, but he wants to be a good football player," Conklin said. "And he understands what it takes to be a good football player. And another reason we've got to take some reps from him is because he's a freshman who really hasn't trained to be a college football player for a long time. So he's going to break down, his body is going to break down as we go throughout the season just naturally because he hasn't trained like these other (older) guys. So we've just got to be able to monitor that so he can play at the high rate of speed he has been."
A longtime special teams regular, Wilks played some safety alongside McNeil last week at South Carolina and could find more playing time again this week. The veteran from Smyrna worked some at first-team safety Wednesday while Byron Moore looked on in street clothes. Moore was held out because both stomach and sinus ailments.
"You know Rod's been a real light for our group and a real light to our defense," Conklin said. "He hasn't been able to play as much as probably he would have looked for or expected, but he's really kept after it and he's gotten better every week. I think there's some merit to playing him a little bit more."
Freshman cornerback Daniel Gray got his most extensive action to date in the Vols' game last Saturday at South Carolina, and the Florida native could be in line for an even greater role this week when UT hosts Troy for homecoming. Gray is challenging fifth-year senior Prentiss Waggner for starting honors against the Trojans.
"Daniel played 19 plays and he was a pleasant surprise," defensive backs Derrick Ansley, a former standout at Troy, said. "Daniel's gifted, (physical) gifts are not the issue. You don't want a kid to go out there, give up a big play in his first couple of snaps and kill his confidence for the rest of the year. We kind of had to pick and choose when we put him in there, but at some point we just said, 'Let's play him.'"
Ansley said Gray was slightly ahead of fellow rookie Deion Bonner but challenged both players to keep improving.
"Deion's still with the twos. He and Dan are both still making some mistakes," Ansley said. "We need him to keep coming, competing and growing as a player. I would say Dan's a little bit ahead of him right now."
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