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UT’s Sunseri Trying To Get His Vol Defense Back To The Basics

What do you do you when your defense is on a record-setting pace in terms of yards allowed (in the wrong way)?  What do you do when your squad gives up a combined 1,115 in back-to-back SEC games?

You get back to basics, says first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri:


“You want to get back to make sure you’re tackling properly, you’re chasing the football, you’re playing routes.  This was a great (off) week for us to get better.  We’re going to get better, but we’re not near where we need to be…

The other day we had too many explosive plays, not enough people flying to the football, and that’s what hurt us.”


Sunseri and head coach Derek Dooley continue to say that the problem in Knoxville is one of fundamentals.  But their defensive players repeatedly cite communication issues as being a part of the problem — recognizing an offensive set, processing the information, calling out the defense, and then processing that info, too.

Derek Dooley wanted more turnovers and Sunseri’s new 3-4 scheme is providing them (12 so far).  But the Vols are also allowing a staggering 425 yards per contest (with only Arkansas yielding more ground).  Last year under Justin Wilcox’s leadership and a 4-3 system, Tennessee allowed just 340.5 yards per game with a much younger group of players.  The downside?  The 2011 Vols recorded just 18 turnovers over the course of the entire season.

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Checkmate: Bama’s Saban Takes Thompson Back From UT’s Dooley

The SEC can be a pretty wild place on occasion.  But here’s one that’s out of the ordinary even for this conference.

On Friday, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley announced that he had hired Alabama linebackers coach and assistant head coach Sal Sunseri to be his new defensive coordinator at Tennessee.

During his press conference, he said he didn’t view it as grabbing a guy from his old boss (Saban) because of the nature of the job and the title involved.  It was a step up for Sunseri.

“I told Nick when I called him that it is a hard call because it wasn’t about a Tennessee and Alabama deal… And I was really pleased at how professionally he handled it.  And we have a friendship, too.  So that will never get compromised.  It wasn’t about Tennessee taking anything from Alabama.”

Hold that thought.  Ominously, Dooley also offered this up regarding the relief he felt in making an important coordinator hire:

“You catch your breath for about 30 seconds.  And that’s about how long you got at Tennessee before something else is on the way.”

Fast forward from Friday to Sunday evening — a tad longer than 30 seconds — when news broke that Saban and Alabama were hiring Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson as Sunseri’s replacement.  Presto chango, Dooley’s now lost his sixth assistant this offseason and he’s once again got three holes to fill with signing day fast approaching.

One wonders if Saban called Dooley to simply say, “Checkmate.”

You see, Thompson was on Saban’s staff in Tuscaloosa before joining Lane Kiffin in Knoxville in 2009.  When Kiffin left, Thompson was one of three assistants who didn’t head to Southern Cal with him and one of two (along with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney) who remained at Tennessee.

When Thompson left Bama, Saban hired — wait for it — Sunseri to replace him.  So it’s no wonder Thompson wasn’t thrilled about being passed over for the Vols’ defensive coordinator job… for the guy who replaced him with the Tide.  (Now you see why we hinted at Thompson’s potential departure several times last week.)

Thompson had to look at the situation and wonder if he’d just kept his job on Saban’s staff in 2009 if he wouldn’t have been Dooley’s target for D-coordinator this time around.  He’d also have a pair of BCS title rings.

While Sunseri is getting a promotion to move to Knoxville, Thompson appears to be making a lateral shift.  If he’s given Sunseri’s old “assistant head coach” title it would make the move appear to be at least some form of promotion.  (As if going from a troubled staff at struggling Tennessee to a stable staff at national champ Alabama weren’t promotion enough.)

So now, Tennessee is back trying to fill three vacancies on its staff:

Charlie Baggett — retired (replaced by Jay Graham)
Eric Russell — left for Washington State (open)
Justin Wilcox — left for Washington (replaced by Sunseri)
Peter Sirmon — left for Washington (open)
Harry Hiestand — left for Notre Dame (replaced by Sam Pittman)
Lance Thompson — left for Alabama (open)

And that’s not all the shifting.  Offensive coordinator Chaney will move from running backs to quarterbacks next season.  Quarterback coach Darrin Hinshaw will take over Baggett’s old receivers coaching position.  And Graham will handle the running backs spot given up by Chaney.

So Dooley finally has a roster with depth and experience, but heading into what many believe will be a make or break year, the positive possibilities might be offset by turmoil and turnover on his staff.

Meanwhile, Saban is simply plugging holes because who wouldn’t want to get the words “Alabama” and “Saban” on their resume?  Thompson will get his old job back and replace Sunseri.  Jim McElwain’s old offensive coordinator slot remains open, but sources in Tuscaloosa suggest Washington offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is close to being named McElwain’s replacement.

At Alabama, when one door closes, another one opens.  At Tennessee, when one door opens, Dooley has to check to make sure its not a trapdoor beneath his feet.

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Report: LSU’s Chavis Turns Down $1 Million Offer From UT

Apparently LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis believes the old phrase: “You can’t go home again.”  According to the Twitter feed of Knoxville radio host Jimmy Hyams, Chavis had the chance to return to his Tennessee roots but he turned it down.

Along with more than a million bucks:

“UT offered LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis the DC job at over $1 million a year.  He declined.  Chavis coached at UT from 1989-2008.”

Chavis also played at Tennessee. 

But it’s well known the man running LSU’s tough-as-nails defense wasn’t thrilled with the way he and his old boss, Phillip Fulmer, were sent packing following their second losing season in four back in ’08.  The odds of him leaving a well-stocked, championship caliber program in a talent-rich state for a tougher job with a coach on the hot seat at a place that allowed Lane Kiffin to fire him after a 60-second meeting were mighty, mighty long.  Probably too long for Derek Dooley to have even given this one a shot. 

But many in the Volunteer fanbase will likely approve of the attempt to bring the man called Chief back to his old home.

And many more in Louisiana will be glad to know that his blood now runs purple and gold, not orange.

As for Tennessee, it’s been rumored that Dooley had also targeted Clemson’s Kevin Steele, but last night’s 70-33 shellacking at the hands of West Virginia might have cooled that talk.  The Vols are looking to replace Justin Wilcox who left to become the defensive coordinator at Washington.

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Two Prospects Decommit From Tennessee

Tennessee lost two commitments for the class of 2012 during the weekend.

One prospect, wide receiver Keithon Redding from Decatur, Ga., told MrSEC he decommitted from UT because of recent coaching changes.

Wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett left the program last month. UT hired Jay Graham to coach running backs and moved Darin Hinshaw from quarterbacks coach to receivers coach.

Redding, who told MrSEC he will consider Kentucky, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, told that he saw a “whole lot of issues” at UT and factored that in to his decision to look elsewhere.

Redding said the decision to decommit was completely his choice.

That wasn’t necessarily the case for Austell, Ga., linebacker Khalid Henderson, who told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was encouraged by UT coach Derek Dooley to look elsewhere.

“Coach Dooley said there is a ‘possibility’ you might not be coming to Tennessee,” Henderson said, via the AJC. “He said you have two options: ‘You can stay committed to us, wait it out and see what other players do. Or you can de-commit and try to get some attention from other schools but that doesn’t mean you can’t come to Tennessee’ or whatever. He was very iffy about everything. He wouldn’t say anything concrete. He kept on using that word ‘possibility.’”

Henderson decided it was in his best interest to decommit from UT. And he didn’t appear to be happy about it.

“I thought it was a bunch of crap,” Henderson told the AJC. “I guess if Tennessee is out there looking for other linebackers, then I can do find another place to go. Tennessee is where I wanted to go, and that’s where I’ve been loyal to ever since June. But it is what it is.”

UT will now have to deal with the loss of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon. The two coaches left on Monday to take the same positions at Washington.

The losses of Henderson and Redding leave UT with 20 commitments for the class of 2012.

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More SEC Coaching Changes: UT Losing 2 Coaches To UW

Add another open coordinator spot to the list of SEC vacancies.  ESPN is reporting that Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon have both agreed to join the staff at Washington.

Wilcox — in his second year at UT — managed to lead the young, thin Vols to a Top 35 national ranking in total defense.  He and Sirmon both played football at Oregon.  Wilcox was the defensive coordinator at Oregon before joining Tennessee’s staff.

Derek Dooley is also in need of a replacement for Eric Russell, the Vols’ special teams coordinator and tight ends coach who left for Washington State last month.

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SEC Headlines – 12/13/11

1.  While a number of Alabama juniors might consider an early jump to the NFL, right tackle DJ Fluker says he’ll be back in Tuscaloosa next year.

2.  Auburn running back Onterio McCalebb might think about turning pro early.

3.  Tony Barbee hopes his team’s light early-season schedule — the Tigers have played just five games to date — will pay off in the long run.

4.  New Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes thinks his philosophy meshes well with Bobby Petrino’s.  (Looks like a really sharp hire by the Razorbacks, by the way.  If UA gets a defense… look out.)

5.  LSU tailback Spencer Ware hasn’t been as involved in the Tiger offense since his suspension for the Auburn game.

6.  It’s official, Matt Luke is returning to Ole Miss to coach the Rebels’ offensive line.

7.  Seventeenth-ranked MSU will be aiming for revenge when they face Florida Atlantic tonight… a team that beat the Dogs last season.

8.  This writer has five tips for how Florida can improve its chances of winning the Gator Bowl (and avoiding the school’s first losing season since 1979).

9.  Senior center Ben Jones was voted Georgia’s most valuable player this season.

10.  From the folks in the stands to Dick Vitale, everyone’s wondering what was wrong with Kentucky’s Terrence Jones in Saturday’s loss to Indiana.

11.  The battle over Rupp Arena rolls on… and now there’s a debate over who’ll pay for whatever is finally done on that site.

12.  This writer believes Bruce Ellington should pick basketball over football at South Carolina next year.

13.  A look at the contracts of Tennessee’s assistant football coaches reveals that coordinators Justin Wilcox and Jim Chaney each have million-dollar buyouts.

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SEC Headlines – 8/22/11 Part Two

1.  Nick Saban says Alabama’s #2 ranking in the AP preseason poll is nothing more than a conversation piece.

2.  Saban says freshman defensive back Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix is “the most pleasant, upbeat, smile on his face all the time, easy-to-coach guy that wants to learn that we’ve probably had around here in a long time.” 

3.  So just how many freshmen will get on the field for the Tide this fall?

4.  Gene Chizik has given Auburn’s players yesterday and today off.

5.  Linebacker Eltoro Freeman has one last chance to shine on The Plains.

6.  The Tigers are hoping to continue their solid special teams play from a year ago.

7.  Ex-baseball player Brent Brewer likes to “put the pain on people” as a Tennessee safety.

8.  Prentiss Waggner’s knowledge of Justin Wilcox’ system has earned him a starting spot in UT’s secondary.

9.  As long as the Volunteers stay healthy, most spots on Derek Dooley’s two-deep have already been claimed.

10.  Vanderbilt has an SEC-high 21 returning starters this season… from a team that finished just 2-10.

11.  Vandy’s roster of scooter-drivin’ Dores is growing.  (Obviously, they haven’t been keeping track of the accident reports from Athens, Georgia.)

12.  This writer says that with expansion looming in the SEC, it’s now or never for James Franklin to make VU a competitive program.

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SEC Headlines – 8/18/11 Part One

1.  Florida’s players say there’s no internal strife in Gainesville this year.

2.  The spread-option may be gone, but the Wildcat lives on at UF.

3.  The strength and conditioning coach for the Gator basketball team has left for a job with the San Antonio Spurs.

4.  Georgia has lost another body in Jakar Hamilton, but at least the Dawgs have built some depth at safety.

5.  Isaiah Crowell is closer to returning to action than Richard Samuel.

6.  Egads!  UGA’s not in the Sports Illustrated’s preseason Top 25.

7.  Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton is listening to advice from ex-QBs Tee Martin and Andre Woodson.

8.  Learning Rick Minter’s new defense is “an upper-level course.”

9.  UK hoopster Darius Miller and Team USA moved to 5-0 in the World University Game yesterday.

10.  South Carolina quarterback candidate Connor Shaw looked good in last night’s scrimmage, until he dislocated his thumb.

11.  True freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown. 

12.  Tennessee has plenty of options in its secondary.

13.  Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox says freshman Curt Maggitt is “a linebacker and he’s pass-rusher.”  And he admits there aren’t too many guys like that.

14.  Vol strength coach Ron McKeefery wants the weight room “to be the nerve center of the entire operation.”

15.  Receiver Jordan Matthews brings big play potential to Vanderbilt’s offense.

16.  James Franklin says his players must treat football like a job.  “They’re going to have to wake up every single morning and go earn it.”

17.  VU defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff — who served at Miami for the last three years — isn’t talking about the Yahoo! Sports report.

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Bama’s Davis Interviewing With Texas

First former Florida defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was ticketed for Austin.  Then Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was rumored to be high on Mack Brown’s wish list.  But as of now, Alabama defensive line coach Bo Davis looks to be a Texas target, though not for the open D-coordinator slot.

The Longhorns are looking for defensive tackles coach and a strength and conditioning coach.  The Tuscaloosa News points out that Davis has experience in both areas.

Davis has told friends that he is expected to take a position on the Texas staff if offered.

Davis has been on the staff at Alabama since Nick Saban took over.  His name also came up in connection to Florida when Will Muschamp was hired in Gainesville.

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SEC New Year’s Day Headlines

1. Kentucky 78 – Louisville 63.  A double-double for Josh Harrellson.

2. John Clay: “Louisville had the glitz.  Kentucky had the grit.”

3. College of Charleston 91 – Tennessee 78.  Vols drop to 9-4.  Pearl ejected.

4. Florida 71 – Xavier 67.  Gators snap the Musketeers 30-game home winning streak.

5. Arkansas 87 – UT Arlington 74.  Razorbacks win fourth straight.

6. Auburn 63 – Grambling 45.  Tigers improve to 6-7.

7. Georgia 64 – Eastern Kentucky 57.  Streaking Bulldogs have won eight in a row.

8. Jeff Schultz: Does anybody believe Mark Richt can still get it done?”

9. Scott Rabalais on LSU football: “These last 10 years — 2001 to 2010 — can’t be topped.”

10. LSU’s “Mr. Reliable” gets set for his final college kicks.

11. Justin Wilcox is staying put at Tennessee.

12. Expect the NCAA Rules Committee to take a look at the final play in regulation from Thursday night’s Music City Bowl.

13. One of the perks of a big-time college football coaching job?  Use of a private plane for personal use.

14. An eventful year in South Carolina sports.

15. Greg McElroy originally committed to Texas Tech.  Alabama is glad he changed his mind.

16. How Auburn’s receivers stack up against Oregon’s defensive backs.

17. A memorable one-year anniversary for Auburn.

18.  The big story at Ole Miss in 2010? Black Bear.

19.  Month by month – what SEC fans were talking about in 2010.

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