Hiring Sal Sunseri away from Alabama hasn’t turned the tide for Tennessee.
The Crimson Tide’s defense has adapted much better to the loss of Sunseri than Tennessee’s defense has to the addition of Sunseri.
Top-ranked Alabama (3-0, 6-0) will bring the nation’s top-ranked defense to Tennessee (0-3, 3-3) on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN) and is expected to provide quite the contrast to the Volunteers’ Sunseri-coordinated unit.
Alabama, which had Sunseri as its linebackers coach while winning national championships in 2009 and last season, is allowing 181.1 yards per game under fifth-year defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Tennessee is allowing considerably more than double that amount (429.8 yards per game) under Sunseri, who was hired after Justin Wilcox left to become defensive coordinator at Washington following the 2011 season.
Particularly discouraging for many Vols fans, among others, was the lack of progress UT appeared to make in Saturday’s loss at Mississippi State after having two weeks to prepare. The Bulldogs, better known for their defensive personnel, tallied 450 yards total offense and possessed the ball more than two-thirds of the game.
“We are obviously not playing very well on defense,” said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who also worked for Alabama counterpart Nick Saban with the Miami Dolphins and at LSU. “That’s not something we can hide about, and you know, there is a lot of evaluating going on, continued evaluation. It starts with coaching.
“We can do a lot better job to help our players, and we are going to do that. There is an execution component on some of the things that shouldn’t be mistakes that we are making.”
Tackling in space has been iffy for UT, an especially troubling trend for a unit that often allows opposing players to get the ball in space. Poor communication — during a transition to Sunseri’s 3-4 scheme — has frequently been cited by Volunteers players and coaches for busted assignments.
“We had some real long discussions (Sunday) about it (defense) and we have talked about it, literally, in every press conference,” said Dooley, who is taking on an expanded, albeit non-specified, role with the defense this week. “Most of the plays we give up, there’s an early pre-snap breakdown on either alignment or assignment and then something happens and then there’s not enough there to recover. Mistakes happen a lot, but you’ve gotta have some recovery. And so it’s so important that we — we can’t go through the whole season and say, ‘Well, we didn’t line up right.’”
Things have lined up nicely for Alabama. The Tide got to play second-string quarterbacks when they held Arkansas and Missouri to 137 and 119 yards, respectively. The rich get richer, it seems, and the football gods seem to be piling on.
But Michigan (269 yards) and Mississippi (218) were stymied, too.
Playing Tennessee on the road should be the stiffest test to date for Alabama’s defense, even without running back Rajion Neal. UT quarterback Tyler Bray, receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter and the Volunteers veteran offensive line should require Smart’s squad to be focused and energetic.
“This is by far the best offensive line we’ve played against all year long,” Saban said. “I think they do a really good job with their protection schemes and make it difficult to pressure you. They’re maybe a little different than they have been in the past. They’re a lot more protection conscious, and that’s keeping the quarterback from getting hit much. And he’s pretty smart about getting rid of the ball and not getting hit.”
There’s mutual admiration among UT offensive linemen, who probably relish the opportunity — on some level — to measure up against Alabama.
“They all rally to the ball and they’re technically sound (on defense),” Tennessee left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson said. “They’re very well coached. They get 11 guys to the ball. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about them — is they all fly to the ball. They’re really powerful, have a really good base across the front seven.”
Alabama’s secondary includes Sunseri’s son, Vinnie, a sophomore safety who briefly considered transferring when his father left following his freshman season. Vinnie did come to Knoxville a couple of weeks ago, as the Vols and ‘Bama each had open dates on Oct. 6.
“Coach Saban was the reason why I stayed here,” Vinnie said. “He’s one of the best DB coaches out there and I just want to learn from the best. The reason why I did come here was because my family was here, and I was never able to be with my dad because he was always out recruiting and coaching other players. … But once he left, it wasn’t too, too rough of a decision, but it was something that I definitely had to sleep on for a night.”
Rest assured, Vinnie is comfortable with the decision he made, although his father probably isn’t getting much sleep these days.
Notes: A Bray tweet following the loss in Starkville understandably didn’t go over well. He described UT fans as “bandwagon”and said he hoped his house didn’t get egged, as Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray’s was following a 35-7 loss at South Carolina. “Tyler, he shouldn’t have done it and he knows it,” Dooley said. “And of course, he’s frustrated like a lot of these guys, and they type. … When you are angry, lonely, tired, hurt, don’t type. … It could have been a good tweet if he had left out the first part. You know, it had a little humor to it, I thought. And I told him that. I said if you’d just said, ‘I hope my house doesn’t get egged tonight,’ it could have been kind of funny.” … Bray twisted his left knee on a scramble at Mississippi State, returned to practice Tuesday and is expected to wear a brace on Saturday. … Alabama opened as a an 18 1/2-point favorite and the point spread has climbed to 20 1/2.