KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Defensive Coordinator Sal Sunseri has high standards for everything in life, especially when it comes to his football team.
According to Sunseri, the Vols had spurts of good plays against Georgia Saturday, but they were not up to his standards.
“We have to go out there and compete against everybody in the country, especially in the SEC, and play to a standard,” said Sunseri. “Last week we didn’t play to a standard. Our standard is set high and the standard we played the other day wasn’t very good.”
Sunseri spent a lot of time talking about the big plays given up Saturday and how it is affecting both the team, and him personally.
“The big plays are killing me, my hair is getting whiter,” said Sunseri. “It is just knowing the fits, knowing where you have to be and making a play in space. It is about 11 guys flying to the football. You can’t just make it a one guy game. Everyone has to get off a block, get over, everyone will hit him and everyone has to come.”
During the off week, Sunseri has gotten back to basics.
“What you want to do is get back to making sure you are tackling properly, chasing the football, and you are playing your routes,” said Sunseri. “This was a great week for us to get better, we went out there and competed against each other.”
Also during the off week, the team has reverted to its fall camp practice format with the ones facing off against the ones.
Sunseri believes that this is going to help the Vols in the long run.
“Our offense is a pretty good offense they put a lot of points on the board and our offensive line is a good offensive line,” Sunseri said. “For us playing against them and doing what we have to do against them, we are going to get better. I think like anything else you are going against bigger, stronger people, [the offensive line] is in sync, they are playing fast, they are coming off the ball and striking you and you are going against better backs and all that.
“I think like anything else that we have from the time we go on the practice field to the time that we go to the games, they have to understand. When you are in practice and there is a one-on-one drill, there is a standard that we’re expecting you compete with. Same for a seven-on-seven drill. We want you to compete. Every time you go on that field there is a standard that you have to play with and if you aren’t you are giving yourself and chance and you aren’t giving your team a chance to win. It just doesn’t happen by lip service, you have to go and practice and correct the things you did wrong. And that is the bottom line.”
The bottom line is that Sunseri demands a lot out of his team, and does so by setting a high standard and sticking to it.
“You get what you demand and we are demanding that they get to the ball and that is how it is going to be,” said Sunseri. “The standard around here is not going to change. We are going to demand it and we are going to find people that are going to get to the ball.”
The Vols will have their latest start to a game in eight years when they kickoff at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT in Starkville on Saturday, Oct. 13. The last time the Vols played a game that started at 9 p.m. ET, was also in the Magnolia State back on Oct. 16, 2004 when UT won at Ole Miss, 21-17.
The late start — dictated by television (ESPN2) — is something the Vols will deal with over the next two weeks as part of their preparation.
“I think the important thing that we have to do is know that there is nothing we can do about it,” said head coach Derek Dooley. “We have to control what we can control and get our players ready to play and that is the way it is. I have told our team all the time nothing should affect you. Whether you play at 8 in the morning or 11 at night you have to go play.”
Dooley’s thoughts on the late kickoff largely lays with the supporters of the Big Orange.
“The biggest concern that I have is for the fans,” Dooley said. “We have had these discussions in our meetings from a fan perspective. That is what has made this game special, our support that we have and anytime you make it tough on the fans that is not something that I have been for. I hope there is a way that we can make it a lot better for the fans.”
Dooley himself will be up past his normal bedtime for the game against the Bulldogs.
“I can tell you that I am usually in bed by the time we hit the third or fourth quarter in those late games,” said Dooley. “But you have to adapt and make do and that is not something that we can control. We get a lot of revenue obviously that allows us to give it back to our kids by playing those games. That is just part of the deal.”
LINE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN
Tennessee’s offensive line has quickly established itself as one of the most improved in the nation this season. The numbers speak for themselves.
Through five games, the Vols are averaging 177.4 rushing yards per game and have allowed just three sacks. At the same time last year, those numbers were 84.6 yards per game and 10 sacks. Through five games two years ago, the Vols had already allowed 19 sacks.
That progress is the direct result of the patience the UT coaching staff has shown with a young but talented group over the last two years.
“They are good football players, they are physical and they like to go hit people,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “They are juniors now, so they are a little older and there is seldom something they haven’t seen before. That experience is something you can’t measure. They are right in the stage of their careers where they ought to go out and play physical football and play winning football for you. We are real tickled with how our line has played. We think they have done a nice job up front.”
In addition to having more experience, the Tennessee offensive line is also playing a much more physical brand of football than in year’s past, something that has been most noticeable in the run game.
“I think our kids have been coming across and hitting people and we’ve been running pretty fair most of the season,” Chaney said. “I was happy with what they got done.”
It hasn’t hurt in the passing game either as the line has given quarterback Tyler Bray plenty of time to work in the pocket this season.
When asked about sophomore Antonio Richardson’s effort last Saturday against Georgia, Chaney was quick to point out that slowing down a pass rush, especially one as good as the Bulldogs’, requires a total team effort.
“I don’t know about singling out Tiny,” Chaney said. “I think the offensive line as a group did a nice job. Tiny is playing well but so are the other gentlemen. They are doing a nice job.”
LOOKING FOR A ‘PAT’ ON THE BACK
The Vols have struggled with extra points this season, making 21-of-25 for 84 percent of PATs. Tennessee’s kickers junior Michael Palardy and sophomore Derrick Brodus have both had issues, with each missing pair. Palardy said he isn’t discouraged by the troubles and is keying on his task on the field.
“It is part of the game, it happens,” said Palardy. “Adversity hits, in a lot of the parts of the game no matter what position you play. The more mentally focused you are, the more prepared you are, the more successful you are going to be and get the results you want.”
Palardy says he hasn’t been told who the primary kicker will be for the Mississippi State game in two weeks, but he is aiming to look forward and will be ready for his next opportunity.
“I am focused on coming out here at practice and being consistent and pushing my teammates,” he said, “having my teammates push me. Just being consistent and being focused so I can carry that over into Saturday.
“There is no excuse for missed field goals and missed PATs and stuff that we should hit and that we hit in practice all the time. But it is the beauty of the game. You go out and it happens you just have to move on to the next one and forget about it and call it a day.”
Special teams coordinator Charlie Coiner said the team is spending time to get the Vols back to up to speed on PATs, knowing that every point is valuable.
“I don’t care if you’re in high school or in college; you make PATs,” Coiner said. “We’re working hard to get that corrected, and it’s a big deal. It changes the game, whether you have one, two or three or four scores. We left four points on that football field, and we got that ball late. We could have been driving for a field goal instead of a touchdown. We realize that. It’s not good enough and we’re working to get it better.”
The last time Tennessee missed four extra points in a season was back in 1975.
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
“The bye week is always a good opportunity to evaluate the things you are doing well and work on the things you need improvement on. You look back at the five games and there are a lot of positives in those five games as far as growth of our program and against some good football teams. We haven’t always gotten the results that we wanted but there are also a ton of things that we need to improve on in every level and that is what we are doing.”
(On the team playing all four quarters)
“I would say it is a couple things. First of all it is playing with a level of consistency for four quarters. You look at how we played in the second and fourth quarter on defense and we really played very well running the same calls against the same plays. Then we had too many breakdowns throughout the course of the game. The second thing is just good ole fashioned taking on blocks, getting on blocks and getting a lot of hats to the football. I don’t care how much scheme you do, how advanced you get, how old you get or how young you are, good defensive football is about whipping the guy in front of you and getting to the football and that will never change.”
(On the amount of points scored this season across the country)
“It is hard for me. I don’t analyze all of the other teams. Football always goes in cycles and there are trends and things change. I think what you are seeing is a lot of good quarterback play. When you are scoring points it is hard to do without good quarterback play. There are a lot of teams out there with quarterback play that is where it starts. I don’t know if there is one answer of why it is happening, I am sure that it is a combination of a lot of things and it is one of those trends that always comes around in football.”
(On the run game)
“I feel like we have been making progress every week. The first game we ran it really well and we are averaging almost a football field longer than we were at this time last year. The offensive line is doing really well and Rajion is running hard and getting better each week. We are going to need that running game if we are going to win some SEC football games that is for sure but it gave us a chance in Athens.”
(On Georgia’s defensive schemes)
“It was pretty clear that Georgia didn’t want us to beat them by throwing over the top with CP and Justin so when they are playing guys that high it means that you have to run the ball and spread the ball out underneath and the guys did a good job. What we need to learn how to do is to execute the last seven minutes of the game as we did in the first three and a half quarters. We had a lot of points and yards on the board but you have to maintain that level of consistency and execution if you are going to win the game.”
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHANEY
(On Tyler Bray learning from the Georgia game)
“I expect him to come out of there a lot better than he was after the ball game. We expect him to do that, he’ll learn a lot and we’ll keep moving on.”
(On whether more teams will play their safeties deep like Georgia)
“I don’t know what to expect. Sometimes they will come in and press you all the time, sometimes they won’t. We just have to deal with what they deal us on game day so it is important to be ready for all of that stuff. That was obviously [Georgia’s] approach to the ball game. What Mississippi State’s will be, I’m not sure. We’ll see.”
(On Rajion Neal’s ability to catch the ball out of the back field)
“That’s a great luxury. All of our running backs catch the ball very well so we are comfortable with whoever is in there catching the ball. They are an added addition to the passing game and we appreciate it.”
(On having five legitimate receiving threats)
“From my perspective it is fun that I don’t have a flea in there anywhere that I can’t throw the ball to. All of our players are playing hard and when they get a chance to make a play, for the most part, they are doing it and are executing the play we would like for them to do.”
(On Zach Rogers being successful with Georgia’s safeties playing deep)
“I think he is doing a good job. Now, you are backing them up because of Justin [Hunter] and [Cordarrelle] Patterson and I don’t know if that is always the truth for why they are backing them up. I believe Zach has run by a few people also and I am comfortable with him playing. He is playing very well and he is playing like an elder statesman should be. We are really proud of him.”
(On Pig Howard)
“The last two days, he has had fantastic practice days and he is getting better and better every day he goes on the field.”
(On the running backs)
“I think Jay [Graham] has done a great job with all of those running backs. They are getting better and better. I see growth and development in them every week. I hope that continues and I expect it will. They have a lot of pride for what they are doing in that room and they are doing a fine job. They are getting better and better every week.”
(On the team’s confidence level)
“I haven’t sensed any confidence issues this whole season. Every year is a different year with teams and this team, for the most part this season, has played with quite a bit of confidence.”
(On having such a versatile offense)
“I feel like there is quite a bit there to work with. I’m comfortable with what we have. It gets down to how much of the pie you want to put in. You just have one size pie, but they are doing a good job with it. We’ll put a few wrinkles in but what we have found over the years is that doing the same stuff you do and doing it better every week is kind of the way to go.”
(On A.J. Johnson in the “Beast” Package)
“He scored, so I’m happy. The beast was good this week. The week earlier, the beast was good half the time. We like the beast and A.J. is good at it. He loves to do it and it energizes our offense, so we are excited about that. I think that will remain a part of us.”
(On whether Johnson ad-libs or has a designated hole to run through)
“We design a hole and most of the time he hits it, so we are tickled with that.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On getting back to fundamentals)
“After seeing the game and the things that we did, what we have to do is go back and work on fundamentals all week. Tackling, taking on blocks, tearing off blocks, rushing the passer, doing the things right that gives us a chance to win. The other day there were too many dang explosive plays and not enough good people flying to the football and that is what hurt us during the game.”
(On making tackles in space)
“Bottom line is that we have to make tackles in space, we have to lock down balls, and we have to play tighter coverage. We got some turnovers and created some opportunities but the only thing that I was truly happy about with this team was that they competed to the end and gave us a chance to win. When you create a turnover and give an opportunity to the offense to score you have a chance.”
(On LaDarrell McNeil)
“You want a bunch of younger guys to show you what you know, show you that they have the athleticism. As you saw LaDarrell came in there and did a heck of a job and you will see more of him. He came out ready to play, he did a great job, he is a very active, instinctive football player and he did a great job.”
(On the attitude of the defense in practice this week)
“It has been good. I think like anything else, no one is going to feel sorry for them out there. We are going to go out there and challenge them regardless of the outcome just like we did when we won three games and lost two games. We are going to go out there and demand that they do it right. Demand the standard and demand them to go make plays. It all comes down to young men making plays, in space, tight quarters, it doesn’t matter. You have to make plays and we didn’t make enough plays and we gave up too many big plays.”
(On Curt Maggitt)
“What happens is that because of the toe he doesn’t really get to practice Tuesday, we get him a little bit Wednesday and Thursday. The fundamentals of what he needs to do and get better at he is missing on Tuesday. He is really learning on the run in the game. But that is no excuse. You can still watch tape, you can watch it here at home, you can look at the things fundamentally that it takes to be an outside linebacker at a high standard. He will benefit from the off-week because it is a physical game and he plays a lot of plays. He is on the field for us a lot.”
(On how Maggitt’s injury has affected him on the field)
I think like anything else they see the pace of the game and then they have a chance to go out here the past two days and get an opportunity to show what they can do. The pace of the game is pretty fast but it didn’t affect McNeil. He went out there and played well. I touched on that earlier. I am pleased with the kid, he’s a kid that flies around and makes plays. He is going to make mistakes and we understand that but he also makes plays.
(On Daniel McCullers)
“We have to get him out there as much as we can because he has done a great job and we have to keep pushing him and make him understand that he has a heck of a lot of ability. We just have to keep force feeding it to him and make him play every down that he can because he is a force out there.”
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH CHARLIE COINER
(On Palardy’s extra point)
“Who knows what’s in another man’s head and what weight is on him. He shouldn’t be, but sometimes you go out there and you’re over-analytical, or thinking this or that. He’s a good kicker. He should go out there and let muscle memory take over and kick the football.”
(On sensing a loss of confidence)
“I think we’ve seen that a little bit. No one knows what goes on in another man’s head, but they’ve both missed extra points. It’s not like their 36, 37 yard field goals. We need to make extra points, and whatever that is, we need to get it corrected.”
(On how long he’s coached kickers)
“As far as the technical part of it, off and on. I coached David Akers when he was at Louisville, and I’m obviously proud of that. I coached Donnie Jones, and now he’s in the NFL. We’ve got guys that help us with it, technically. We’ve got guys who help off the field. But I’ve coached them long enough to know. The thing about that is, you sit them down with a video and talk about it. It’s a lot different than coaching a tight end. It’s a lot of videos.”
(On whether errors are technical or mental)
“I see both. I see technical mistakes, even at kick off. You look at how it came off a foot or trying to kill the ball, which sends it out of bounds. There’s technical things, and there’s also mental things. And that’s the part that’s harder to coach. What you see and what you coach on the video, you see and they see. It’s happening right in front of you. Maybe they don’t realize it when they’re doing it. But the mental part of it, you have to really start talking about positive thinking and putting the negative things out of your mind. That’s the harder part for me.”
JUNIOR K MICHAEL PALARDY
(On always being prepared to go into the game)
“It is just taking it day by day. What I have been doing is coming out here and working and doing everything I can for the team, being a support system and having a support system. Whenever I am called on when they need me that is when I am there. If they need me I have to go do what I have to do.”
(On what he has been working on)
“Just being consistent and staying mentally focused. Not letting anything get the best of me. Not let myself get down. Just come out here and work. That is what we have been doing, we have been pushing each other and fighting with each other and battling and competing. We are good friends. Everybody is pushing each other and making each other better. So that is what we have been doing these past couple weeks.”
(On what causes missed kicks)
“It could be a number of things. I don’t think it is one thing specific that goes wrong. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, whether it is a snap or hold or a lack of concentration. But there is no one specific thing that goes wrong. If you miss a kick, whether it is an extra point, a field goal, or anything like that you just have to move on to the next one. Take it kick by kick.”
(On missed kicks affecting his mentality)
“My first miss this season was against NC State and I came back for the rest of the game and had a good game, made all my kicks and had no problems. It just goes to show that you have to stay concentrated and in to the game and focused. Being mentally prepared you are going to get the results you want.”
(On missing kicks)
“People want results. Being a kicker that is what you have to understand. When people don’t see the results that they want you are going to get it. We have bright spots and we have down falls and everyone has to understand that. We have to understand that. Now there is no excuse for the missed kicks and the missed extra points, that is stuff that we have to clean up, people don’t want to see that and we don’t want to see that. Taking it kick by kick and doing what we can is the best thing we can do.”