With a pair of national championships (2009 and 2011) under his belt and having been on the cusp of a winning a Super Bowl ring with the Carolina Panthers (2004), Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri knows what it takes to win at football’s highest levels.
And he can’t wait to teach it to the Vols.
“I’m extremely excited to be here at the University of Tennessee,” Sunseri said. “It has great tradition. I really believe that if things are done the way we want to get them done, we’re going to put a product on the field that everybody is going to be proud of. I think what you have to understand is, we’re going to be a multiple-front defense, a pro-style defense.
“I can’t wait to get out here, see the guys move around, see their talent and see what we need to run. We’re going to adjust the defense and play the things we’re capable of doing based on our personnel.”
With eight starters returning, Tennessee has plenty in ‘the cupboard’ to do damage, regardless of what style the Vols play.
The key for UT is approaching the upcoming spring with a professional mindset, something Sunseri knows all about, coaching with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-08.
“I’m watching tape and we just looked at a game (Wednesday) morning,” Sunseri said. “If they clean up their techniques and do what they’re supposed to do, they have a chance to be pretty darn good. I put a lot of faith in my coaching ability. I put a lot of faith in the rest of the coaches that are here right now. Derek (Dooley) did a great job of getting the guys here.
“We’re going to go out and teach these kids how to play technique. We’re going to teach them how to be pros on the field. When you’re out there representing the University of Tennessee, whether you’re in the classroom or you’re on the football field, you’re doing it like a pro. That’s what we have to get.”
Sunseri has already sent that message, and is taking a teacher-student approach to his new defense.
“When we step onto this field or we go into those meeting rooms, it’s all business. It’s like they’re going to class and I want them to be able to take what they learned in class and apply it on this field.
“We have to go execute what we need to do. A lot of these kids have a lot of smiles on their faces right now and I think it’s because they’re excited too. They’re up for the challenge and they want to go perform like a top SEC defense should.”
But as learning in school goes, what you get out of it is what you put into it. Thus far, the Vols are motivated to learn as much as they can.
“It’s been good,” Sunseri said. “They’re up here every single day wanting to meet. It’s interesting how many kids are coming through the facility and wanting to get extra time to go study tape.”
The tape the Vols are studying is their own past games, in addition to the way some of the NFL’s very best players perfect their craft.
Sunseri plans on visiting with coaches in the league and possibly having some come to Knoxville, all with one goal: Study, study, study.
“If you want to be a great pass rusher, you have to go get pass rushers in the NationalFootballLeague and (learn) what they’re doing,” Sunseri said. “For the past four years, I’ve always gotten the top 10 pass rushers, taken them and cut their tape up. The great pass rushers that are going to be coming out right now from Alabama have went and studied them. If you want to be a great corner, you better go get (Darrelle) Revis’ tape and watch how he does technique. These kids love to see pro athletes doing what they’re doing and try to simulate them.”
Ultimately, what Sunseri is trying to simulate is the tradition that makes Tennessee special.
“I’m really fired up to be honest with you because I really believe you can win at Tennessee and I believe you can win consistently at Tennessee.”
BACK TO THE BASICS
It’s not just the defensive staff that has been on “lockdown” in the film room the past few days. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and the rest of the offensive coaches have been doing their fair share of film study as well.
With Chaney taking over the responsibilities for coaching the quarterbacks, Darin Hinshaw moving over to widereceivers and new faces in to coach the offensive line, running backs and tight ends, there is certainly plenty to discuss.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Chaney said. “We enjoy this part of the season, getting to know one another. It’s been good because I’ve known a few of them a little bit over the years, so it is fun to get them in the room. It’s exciting right now going over our football plays and our offense as we look at what we did last year, good and bad, as we move in to trying to make some corrections and some changes and to get some fresh ideas. It’s been entertaining so far.”
While the discussions are really just getting started, one thing is clear. The team’s focus this spring will be on getting better as a fundamentally sound footballteam.
“From a schematic standpoint are there a lot of changes that need to be made? Probably not,” Chaney said. “We just need to do the things that we want to do better. We didn’t run well, we didn’t block well and those are the two things that are important when you are trying to get it done. It has to be done with the right attitude, proper mechanics and all those things. It’s basically getting to first base. The schemes are second base. Let’s get to first base. You do that by learning to playfootball with leverage and with a little bit of an attitude. We have to develop a little better persona when it comes to running the ball.”
One of the biggest areas for improvement for the Vols is in the running game, which averaged just 90.1 yards per game last season. According to Chaney, the answer won’t be found in any new plays, formations or schemes, but rather in the team’s mindset and desire to be successful.
“Anytime you watch the run game and it is not being effective, you aren’t being physical enough,” Chaney said. “That’s the first thing that stands out. That’s glaring all the time and it shows up in our video also. We want to try to be a more physical football team. I’m going to try as a play caller to put them in better positions from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but ultimately they have to go out and win their individual battles against who they have to block and that usually comes down to fundamentals, techniques and your mindset going into the ball game. You have to have that swagger about you that you want to whoop his hind-end. That’s what we have to develop a little bit more of.”
The ultimate goal for the offensive coaches at the end of their “lockdown” is to discover how best to create a more explosive offense.
“Ultimately if you are going to score points, I’ve always said you have to be explosive,” Chaney said. “We are trying to get that done. I think with the addition of a few of the kids that we’ve signed and trying to get the health of our existing players ready, we’ll be fine.”
HIGH HOPES FOR CP
Arguably no other player that signed with the Vols on February 1 is expected to make a more immediate impact than junior college wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Rock Hill, S.C., native was rated as the No. 1 junior college prospect in the entire country by 247Sports and was tabbed a five-star recruit by multiple scouting organizations after earning first team All-American honors at Hutchinson Community College last season. At 6-3, 205 pounds, he should provide Tennessee with another big time playmaker on the outside.
“Cordarrelle Patterson, you guys will know his name very well,” UT wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw said. “He is obviously going to bring (experience). He is an older guy out of a JC and an All-American in junior college. His speed and size and strength and the things I saw him do live and saw him do on film give us a lot of excitement about what he can bring when he comes here to Tennessee. From that standpoint, we are excited about all of the guys that we signed.”
While the Vols already have a pair of standout wideouts in Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, the arrival of the 6-3, 205-pound Patterson will only help them reach even higher levels and accomplish greater things on the football field, according to Hinshaw.
“It’s going to bring competition,” Hinshaw said. “Once he steps foot on campus, it automatically brings competition. The level of receiver that we believe he is and where he has worked himself to put himself in this situation, it’s going to bring competition. He is a really solid football player and has a lot of specifics with his speed, size and strength and his ability to play like a little guy even though he is huge.”
Defensive Coordinator Sal Sunseri
(On the opportunity to coach at Tennessee)
“I’m excited. I’m really excited because I just know the history of Tennessee. They’ve won a lot of SEC championships. They’ve won national championships. There’s great tradition here. You have a chance when you go into any high school and you’re representing the University of Tennessee, to get that young man on the field to come play here.”
(On what he wants fans to know)
“What I want to do is put a product on the field that everybody is going to come to this stadium and say, ‘You know what? These guys are playing hard. They’re playing reckless. They’re giving their body up for this university and they’re making plays.'”
(On the main reason he chose to come to Tennessee)
“Derek (Dooley). I wanted to be with Derek because we worked together at LSU. We know each other’s work ethics and we’re going to be relentless workers until we get it done the way he wants to get it done and the way I want to get it done. You don’t just go with anybody. I believe Derek can be very successful here with the right people around him. It’s like anything else, if you bring good people around you and let them go coach, you can have success.”
(On the SEC)
“It’s the closest thing to the National Football League, being in the SEC, than any other conference in the country. In my mind, any week you can get beat in the SEC. Any week in the NFL, you can get beat. I’m telling you right now, there’s enough talent in the SEC – I don’t care where you are – if the kids come out and are ready to play, you can get your butt beat. My whole thing is every week to get them ready to go psychologically, get them in that disposition that we’re not going to be denied and then go out there and play big-time college football.”
Wide Receivers Coach Darin Hinshaw
(On the team’s main focus)
“We are getting back to the basics right now. The fundamentals and all those kind of things are what we are going to work on this spring. How good we can be is going to be based on that. We have to go back to the fundamentals and get the guys that are here now, that are older, and get them versed on the fundamentals of all our plays and what we are going to do in running the football and passing the football and the fundamentals of catching and all those kind of things. Get back to the basics, get that underneath us and then be able to move forward with some different schemes. At the end of the day, that is what has to happen is the fundamentals all have to be coached and we have to get them really good at it so we can go out and play on Saturdays and play really well and be successful. Doing it better. Do what we do, but do it better.”
(On whether Cordarrelle Patterson reminds him more of Justin Hunter or Da’Rick Rogers)
“Cordarrelle Patterson would be a combination of the two of them, so to speak. He is fast and quick and he has strength and size that is very good.”
Offensive Line Coach Sam Pittman
(On what he is looking for from his offensive line)
“I hope we are smart and aggressive. I want to be talented, I want to go out and continue to recruit talented players. I want them to think athletic and be athletic.”
(On what attracted him to Tennessee)
“You have the most wins of any football program since 1926, you have a stadium of 103,000 people, and you have an offensive coordinator and head coach that I believe in. It is Tennessee. I wanted to come here bad. I wanted to be a part of the University of Tennessee.”