Sal Sunseri knows defense.
The former All-American linebacker at Pitt has spent the last 27 years of his life devising ways to confuse opposing offenses during various stops highlighted by LSU (2000), Alabama (2009-11) and the Carolina Panthers (2002-08). His groups have had a knack for forcing turnovers, pressuring the quarterback and stuffing the run with precision.
But nothing has worked this season for the defensive guru in Knoxville, his first as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator.
In fact, his unit could be the nation’s worst.
The Vols haven given up yards in chunks and points every quarter at an alarmingly high rate. Tennessee’s defense is on pace to set several dubious school records and has been one of the leading reasons Derek Dooley won’t be able to save his job in Year 3 as the program’s head coach. For a team ranked second in the SEC in total offense with a quarterback at the top in both touchdown passes and yards passing, how are the Vols still winless in conference play?
Moving from a 4-3 base during Dooley’s first two seasons to Sunseri’s three-man line this fall has resulted in an SEC-low 1.3 sacks per game. Without that much-needed pressure on the quarterback, the secondary has put up abysmal numbers, ranking last in the SEC and 115th nationally in total pass defense. Giving up a shade under 300 yards per game, Tennessee has recently allowed South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell to each throw for career-highs despite leading primarily run-oriented offenses. Troy’s 496-yard passing outburst over the weekend was the season’s biggest embarrassment.
Against the run, Tennessee has allowed the two longest plays from scrimmage in SEC competition this season (80, Trey Burton, Florida; 75, Keith Marshall, Georgia) and ranks 90th overall stopping the run. Scoring defense and total defense measure a team’s overall ability on that side of the ball and Tennessee ranks last in the SEC in both categories. The Vols’ 483.1 yards per game allowed is 112th in the country while 35.4 points per game allowed comes in at 107. Breaking it down further, Tennessee has given up at least 38 points and 500 yards in five straight contests.
The numbers are shockingly bad, certainly not what Sunseri envisioned as Tennessee’s DC after coming over from the talent-rich Crimson Tide. Sunseri’s unit hasn’t been good at anything on defense, especially getting off the field. Opponents have moved the chains 210 times this season, only 13 occasions via penalty. While Tennessee’s third-down conversion defense is ranked in the top 50 at a respectable 37 percent, a number of big plays have come on first down against the Vols’ starting 11. At times during dreadful October, Tennessee looked lost when its offense was on the sideline. Tyler Bray and his elite offensive line and receivers barely got a breather as opposing offenses moved the football with ease.
That’s what has been most disappointing this season. Tennessee’s talent on offense is the best it has been under Dooley, but defense hasn’t held up its end of the bargain. Stellar play from Bray’s blockers up front has received little to no play since Tennessee is 4-5. That’s just how it is when success in the SEC is based on wins and losses, not numbers.
How ironic that numbers have crippled the Vols, just not the gaudy plays through the air Bray and Co. have achieved. Sunseri’s three-year, $2.4 million deal could soon be up in smoke along with Dooley’s tenure in Knoxville, thanks to a defense that can’t stop anyone.
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