KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri isn’t the only member of the Tennessee coaching staff that is going up against a team he has spent a lot of time with. UT cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley also spent two seasons with Alabama as a defensive assistant from2010-11, winning the national championship in his final year in Tuscaloosa working alongside Sunseri.
Despite their close connections with Alabama, Ansley knows his impact on the game will be limited to his work on the sidelines.
“Me and Coach Sal aren’t going to go out there and make any plays,” Ansley said. “These kids have to believe in their abilities and believe they can beat this team. I think they do. We have to go to there and play good football. This is a good football team coming in here this weekend.”
Ansley will have a chance to catch up with many of his former counterparts, but once the game kicks off it will be business as usual.
“I am going to talk to them during pregame but that is about it,” Ansley said. “I am not going to be able to talk to Coach Saban but I will talk to most of the assistants. It is going to be like any game when you have friends that coach in the SEC. You go up there and see how they are doing, how their families are doing, and get ready for the game.”
Along with Ansley and Sunseri, another member of the Vol staff will be facing his former school — one who wore the crimson and white. Nick Gentry, who serves as the Vols administrative intern on defense, graduated from Alabama a few months ago and played 37 games in four seasons with the Tide, recording 45 tackles, 5.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries.
On Saturday, the Tennessee trio will have only one objective: helping the Vols find a way to claim a win over the No. 1 team in the land.
“(Sal) wants to win, just like he wants to win every week,” Ansley said. “We have to go out there and worry about Tennessee and not worry about those guys.”
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham is no stranger to the UT-Alabama rivalry.
A four-year letter winner for the Vols from 1993-96, Graham played on the Third Saturday in October four times, helping lead the Big Orange to wins in his junior and senior seasons.
Although Tennessee enters Saturday’s game without a win in the rivalry since 2006, Graham knows streaks like that are meant to be broken. In fact, his first win over the Tide – a 41-14 victory in Birmingham – broke a streak of nine consecutive UT losses and provided him with memories that will last a lifetime.
“It was weight lifted off of our shoulders,” Graham said. “It had been [nine] years since we won. It was a great experience. Just to see our fans in the corner of the end zone after that game was a special thing. I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
Before that win, and a 20-13 victory the following year in Knoxville, Graham had to endure defeat first as the Vols dropped a 17-13 decision in 1994. The feeling after that game is something else he will never forget.
“I was hurt,” Graham said. “I went home and didn’t go to sleep. It hurt. That is the thing about the rivalry, you play so hard, you hit hard and play so fast. You want to win that game and it just hurts that much more.”
Graham has made sure to communicate the importance of the rivalry game to this year’s Tennessee squad.
“We have talked about it and they understand,” Graham said. “The energy in practice and everything, they are excited about this opportunity. We get to play against our rival and they are also number one in the country, so those are two things you should get excited about going into the game.”
THE TOUGHEST TEST
This year’s version of the “Third Saturday in October” will pit the number one defense in America against one of the top offensive lines in the country.
According to offensive line coach Sam Pittman, the starting five of Antonio Richardson, Dallas Thomas, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Ja’Wuan James will get the majority of the snaps against Alabama this week. And for good reason.
The Tennessee offensive line, which has allowed just three sacks this season, has set the tone up front this season, helping the Vols average 482.3 yards of total offense, 183.3 yards of which have come from the ground game.
“We don’t want a lot of rotation on our guys because we want to feel what they are doing on defense and make sure we can relate to the calls and get everything going on what we are supposed to get going,” Pittman said. “We like guys who have seen something happen already before. I feel like they have to exchange defensive lineman more than they exchange offensive lineman because they have to go further than we do.”
The line will face its toughest opponent to date in Alabama, which enters the game allowing just 181.2 yards per game. The Crimson Tide has held its opponents to just eight red zone trips this year and a mere six touchdowns through six games.
“They are not only the number one team, they are the number one defense,” Pittman said. “They have a lot of talent and a lot of people. They play a lot of different guys and they are big, all of them are pretty good size guys. They are well coached and they play well with their hands.
“They play relentlessly and they can because they can substitute and get fresh people out there all the time, so we certainly are excited about the challenge. I am glad we are not playing them week one, I am glad we are playing them week seven as we have progressed a little bit. We know we have our work cut out for us but we are really excited about going and playing Alabama.”
Tennessee’s biggest challenge will come on the ground. The Vols rushed for 214 yards last week against Mississippi State, but the line will face a defense that allowed just three total rushing yards against Missouri in its last contest.
“Jay Graham has done such a nice job with the running backs,” Pittman said. “They run hard. I didn’t even know that we had a back or two hurt, I just thought Jay was rotating backs and all that. Of course, Devrin Young came in and ran really hard.”
The Vols will have to play hard for four complete quarters this week against their toughest competition in 2012.
“We are just getting better every week that is the whole thing,” Pittman said. “Regardless of the competition we just get better every week. Maybe here at the end of the fourth quarter we will start winning these games.”
ALABAMA HEAD COACH NICK SABAN
“Games like this are more about the rivalry and less about people’s record. Tennessee has a really good offensive team. It’s always a challenge to play on the road. This is certainly a challenging place to play. They have one of the best offensive teams in the country statistically. They have two great receivers that are some of the top receivers in our conference. They have a very good quarterback who has done a fantastic job for them this year. They’ve got a big offensive line. They’ve been able to create balance on offense. They’ve played well on defense at times and have shown they have the capability to do that. They are a very well-coached team. Derek (Dooley) has done a good job there. They are very good on special teams. This is a challenging game for us. This game means a lot to a lot of people. Certainly it means a lot to me and to us. I think our players will work hard this week to get ready to play the best football.”
(On Tennessee’s offensive line allowing only three sacks this year)
“They’re big, they’re very physical. They’ve got three or four guys that have played a lot of football and are really experienced. This is by far the best offensive line we’ve played against all year long. 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. I think all those things contribute to them not getting sacked a lot.”
(On Vinnie Sunseri and Saban’s relationship with Sunseri and his family)
“I really have a lot of respect for the entire family, certainly Vinnie. But sometimes when you work on something and it happens in the game like you worked on it and the guy makes a play, you get excited about that. That’s kind of what happened on that play. I’m always excited when we get an interception, and I’m always disappointed if we throw one.”
(On similarities between Alabama and Tennessee’s offense)
“I think there are some similarities, but I think the things that they try to emphasize, the things they try to do, the quality of their players, how they use the very good skilled players that they have, as well as a very good offensive line to run the ball and create balance makes it a very, very difficult team to defend. They’ve always done something a little bit different against us in every game. Last year they had three receivers in the game and reloaded one of them and made two back runs to get us in nickel. I’m sure we’ll be adjusting and adapting to something again this year.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On TJ Yeldon)
“He runs the ball extremely well. I don’t think he reminds me of anybody currently. He is an old school runner. He kind of runs a little bit like Ernie Davis used to run, kind of that upright style, good wiggle in the hole. He is a really explosive guy and he looks to take it to the house.”
(On the importance of gang tackling)
“Every game. When you are in the SEC you have these backs that are 220 or 225 and they can run tight ends and wideouts. You have to get more guys to the ball and hopefully we have stressed that enough and we will get guys running to the football.”
(On Justin Coleman)
“We had him in the starting lineup coming out of camp, he had a couple bad days in and out of camp and he ended up being beat out for the first couple games. He has responded well. He is one of the main guys we have on the perimeter that has a lot of toughness and heavy strong hands. He plays with a relentless attitude. He has done very well. I would like to see him make more plays on the ball but he is tackling very well. He is straining. He is doing a really good job at gunner. He is a solid contributor for us right now.”
(On improving the secondary)
“I think our pass coverage on the outside is tight. I think our star could be a lot better in slot coverage. Which that comes with reps and comes with discipline on the linemen. Our guys are playing decent. We aren’t playing to win the football right now in some areas but we have to get all eleven guys playing up to par.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On the challenge the Alabama defense presents)
“Technically they are so sound. They have given up only 500 yards rushing and two yards a carry and that says a lot about what they do. They close down the holes, there aren’t a lot of open holes and we have to get what you see.”
(On what UT has worked on this week)
“We have worked on ball security. I think they have 15 turnovers that they have had in five games so that is going to be a key in the game. We also need to have a low pad leverage and running through [tackles] because they play physical. We have to be able to match their physicality.”
(On Alabama’s weaknesses)
“They play hard and they are great defensively. You can look at the numbers and there aren’t a lot of weaknesses, but we are still looking for them. They have guys that play football the right way. They play hard every play and they get a lot of guys to the football.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On pressure on Tennessee offense)
“I tell you, there’s a lot of maturity that is happening. Like that Mississippi State game, we were moving the ball pretty well there in the second half, and then when we had the turnover, right before the last drive, we came out the last drive, and went right down the field and scored. There was patience there. There were a lot of good throws; there was a lot of good runs, good situations, good blocking and we have to continue that and not worry about what happens on the field. We can’t control anything but what we do. We keep preaching that to them and they’re doing a good job of understanding that. There is a maturity level that comes about and it’s growing. You can see it growing in the team and it’s exciting to see and now we have to go finish games. Bottom line, we have to go finish games.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“It’s just like anything. There’s times when the ball is coming your way and there’s times where we’re going to be able to flip you the ball and let you go do things with it and all that kind of stuff. There have been a bunch of times where we have flipped him the ball and the defense did a good job of sidelining. There’s always different ways to get him the ball. We have to keep getting him the ball, let him go do special things, we have to go block for him, we also have to protect for him. There are a couple rights where he was open and Tyler had to scramble, and he was wide open. We have to get him the ball and Justin the ball. Justin is doing a great job of working through it all. I know he was frustrated a little bit, just like we were. We want to get him the ball too. He’s a play maker. We have to go get him the ball. I tell you, our room is really good. I’m really proud of also the guys that are running the routes to clear out sometimes, to clear out the routes or to do different things to get other guys open. Justin and CP love each other. They always joke around each other on the sidelines, whose going to make the next play, and all that kind of stuff, and that has to continue to happen and we just have to go out there and go make plays.”
(On Alabama secondary)
“They’re very good. The amount of reps they’ve had in games, there are a couple of them that have played a lot, there are a couple of them that haven’t. The thing that they do a great job of is that a lot of those guys left and went to the NFL, and those next guys come and they look really good. They’ve obviously gotten them ready through the years, redshirting and all that kind of stuff, getting them prepared to go play, and they go out and execute their defense as good as anyone in the country. Obviously, they’re number one in the country. They do a really good job in the backend of not only tackling and getting the ball down, but do a good job of putting hands on you and frustrating you at the line of scrimmage with wide receivers, so you can’t run your fourteen yard dig route, you end up running a nine yard dig route. They do a good job of condensing your routes, so we have to do a good job of getting off the ball.”
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH JOHN PALERMO
(On Alabama offensive line)
“I think they are about as close to an NFL offensive line as you can get. They’re coached well, they’re physical and they obviously have very good players. They’re able to run the ball because they have great running backs but the offensive line does a great job of making creases and holes for them. It’s obvious, they are very well coached, so scheme has something to do with it, but they are very talented. You know, the thing that you find out when you have a really good football team, is that you can make mistakes and still overcome mistakes, because somebody plays a little bit harder or plays a little bit better. That’s when you become a great football team, when you don’t necessarily play great, but guys find a way to make plays.”
(On playing all four quarters)
“I wish I could pinpoint them. It’s a lot of things right now that we have to get corrected. We have some flashes of playing good defense, but we have not done it on a consistent basis. You can’t go out, for instance, like Georgia, first quarter; horrible, second quarter; not bad, third quarter; horrible, fourth quarter; really good. First half, Mississippi State; not really good. Third quarter; lights out. Fourth quarter; eh, there’s three or four minutes left in the game, you have to get the ball back for the offense. That’s part of playing good defense, and we didn’t do that.”
(On Sal Sunseri)
“I don’t know how it can’t be special. It’s the first time all year that he even gets a chance to see his son play. I know he’ll be tied up with us, making adjustments and stuff like that, but I’m sure he’ll catch glimpses of watching his son play some. I think it has to be special and coming from Alabama it has to be special for him. I know it would be for me if I had been there.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
(On protecting Tyler Bray more since he is banged up from Mississippi State)
“I don’t know. I still think he has as much mobility as he had before. You just don’t want to get him hit. He is kind of slippery is what he is. He is not really going to break the pocket and go for a fifty-yard run. He is really a big key as for why we don’t have as many sacks. Along with our backs and our wideouts have done a nice job. I don’t think so as long as we don’t get him hit. If we start getting him hit, it could be a problem.