Vols defense looking to play to higher standard

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."

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.”

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.