February 8, 2012

Vols' coaches get locked in

Consider it a Tennessee football jury.

For most of this week, morning to night, Tennessee's coaches have been sequestered --- offense and defense --- into meeting rooms inside the ever-expanding Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, the central nervous system of UT football that's undergoing a $40 million facelift.

Coaches will review each and every play from the Volunteers' 2011 season. They will review each and every player.

They are voicing opinions, expanding coaching philosophies and, at the behest of head coach Derek Dooley, holding nothing back. It's designed to be a free-flowing idea exchange.

They could easily get tired of one another.

Instead, they're breaking bread together after hours.

No one is suggesting that Tennessee had dysfunctional staff chemistry a year ago, but on the heels of Dooley's post-Kentucky comments that the Vols' coaches needed to trust one another more and with six new faces on staff, chemistry is a trending topic.

"I think it's real important. I mean, we go in there, we're having fun," said Sam Pittman, the Vols' new offensive line coach and third piece of Dooley's new six-man jig-saw puzzle. "We're enjoying coming to work. Our meetings are productive, and they're fun. We go out to eat in the evenings together. We have to be together, before we can get the team together. I think coach Dooley has done a nice job of hiring the new guys."

Added veteran offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, the longest-tenured Vols coach on staff, "I think it's everything. Who sits in that room for the hours we sit in that room is critical to everyone's success. Once again this profession is no different than your own. We have all had to work next to someone we didn't like. You think this guy is a jerk and you have to get through it. It's tough and it makes for a tough working environment. I've been real fortunate at Tennessee, I have never had that situation. We have had good people in the room and it appears to me that we have done that again and hired some good individuals. I'm excited about working with them."

Both Chaney and Tennessee's new defensive head, coaching veteran Sal Sunseri, touted the positive effects of Tennessee's coaching renovation as an opportunity to explore new systems on the field and teaching methods away from it.

Though he only has previously worked with new hire Derrick Ansley, Sunseri had longstanding relationships with additions John Palermo and Charlie Coiner.

"It makes it a lot easier. When you go out and get somebody who has been with Lou Holtz, someone who has been with Barry Alvarez, someone who has played in the national championship and been with the Washington Redskins, they're around a lot of concepts of football," Sunseri explained. "When you're around a lot of concepts of football, you know what's going on. You can understand and you can adapt. You've got to be a little bit like a chameleon. One place you're a 4-3, the next place you're a 3-4. One group might run a lot of under defense or over, but that's what we're going to do. We're going to do what these kids can do, coaches know what's going on and we're going to be able to teach techniques that have to be taught."

Chaney said it's pointless to make it a cool contest; the Volunteers' affable offensive coordinator insisted, capriciously, that such an endeavor would be a battle for second place. What Chaney does encourage, however, is breaking down coaching styles to their simplest forms.

"What I always try to do is get everyone on a grassroots level. Let's go through our base offense," said Chaney, entering his fourth season directing UT's offense. "This is who we are. Now let's share some ideas. Let's talk about what you did a little bit differently and see how they mix in to what we are going to do right now. Primarily, it's getting to know one another. Getting to know one another's personalities. Who's fiery, who isn't. Who's as cool as I am, and who isn't."

Chaney may be cool but new running backs coach Jay Graham, whose name still dots the UT annals, carries with him instant star-power, according to staff recruiting ace Darin Hinshaw.

"Obviously, with Jay Graham having played here at Tennessee and everywhere I go with Jay it's like I'm with a celebrity," said Hinshaw, named this week to Rivals.com's top SEC recruiters list. "We've really hit it off. And then Sam Pittman --- numerous coaches have called me that I've coached with and they really respect Sam Pittman and I'm just excited to death about working with them. Great human beings and it's going to be fun."

The camaraderie and mutual respect, according to Sunseri, stretches to the top.

"Derek. I wanted to be with Derek because we worked together at LSU, we know each other's work ethic and we're going to be relentless workers until we get it done the way he wants to get it done, the way I want to get it done," Sunseri said. "Prior relationships, you just don't go with anybody. I believe Derek can be very successful here when he's got the right people around him.

"When you've got good people around you and let them go coach, you have success."

In other words, the jury has delivered its preseason verdict.

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