KNOXVILLE (AP) — As the season grows older, Tennessee’s defense has become younger.
Now it needs to get better.
Tennessee (3-5) has made various personnel changes over the course of the season in an attempt to boost a defense that has allowed the most points and yards per game of any Southeastern Conference team.
Each switch involved promoting an underclassman over an older player.
Sophomore cornerback Justin Coleman, freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil and sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Williams have moved atop the depth chart at the expense of senior cornerback Marsalis Teague, junior safety Brent Brewer and junior outside linebacker Jacques Smith.
More moves could be on the way. Redshirt freshman defensive end Trevarris Saulsberry isn’t a starter, but he has played more in the Vols’ last two games. Freshman Daniel Gray played 19 snaps at cornerback last week in a 38-35 loss at South Carolina and could have an expanded role Saturday against Troy (4-4).
“With these younger guys, we are going to look at everybody to see who is going to give us an opportunity to have speed on the field and make some plays,” defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said.
So far, those shifts haven’t changed the results. As it adjusts to the switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 alignment, Tennessee is on pace to produce statistically one of the worst defenses in the history of a program that started in 1891.
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve had a lot more growing pains or whatever you want to call it than we anticipated,” head coach Derek Do Tennessee has given up 33.9 points and 453.4 yards per game.
The Vols haven’t given up that many points per game over the course of an entire season since 1893, when they allowed 42.7 points per game while playing a six-game schedule. They never have yielded this many yards per game through a full season since at least 1950, the earliest year Tennessee’s sports information department has that statistic on file.
The Vols have allowed at least 37 points in each of their five conference games, all losses.
“It’s just too much, it’s too much, it’s too much and it goes with the coaches,” Sunseri said. “I’ve got to put them in better position to make plays, and I’ll take the responsibility on that, and then we’ve got to go out and execute the calls.”
Tennessee’s struggles have led to plenty of scrutiny regarding Dooley’s decision to introduce a new scheme and hire Sunseri, the former Alabama linebackers coach. Tennessee gave up 22.6 points and 340.5 yards per game last year under former coordinator Justin Wilcox, who left for the same position at Washington.
“I think there were going to be growing pains no matter who you brought in because it is new, even if we went with a 4-3,” Dooley said. “(There would) probably be a lot less growing pains if you kept it a real simple system. Would we be playing better? Probably so. There were some other factors that went to it, as far as being in the league, understanding the league, having a belief in what we are doing and how we are doing it.”
Junior defensive end Maurice Couch said it has taken longer than expected for players to adjust to the new scheme, though he understands its potential benefits.
“A lot of guys felt they were going to just immediately grasp it, but it’s not that easy,” Couch said. “I can definitely see why. Alabama, those guys they kind of run the same scheme a little bit. If you know your assignment and know what to do, you can do a lot on defense with it.”
In the meantime, the Vols struggle for solutions.
They’ve simplified the defense as much as possible and have used more four-man fronts recently, yet they’re still giving up too many big plays. They allowed nine gains of at least 20 yards against South Carolina, including a touchdown on third-and-goal from the 26.
Although Tennessee is favored by 18½ points Saturday, Troy’s offense averages 460 yards per game. It’s one more test for a defense that has faced a much greater challenge than anticipated in adjusting to a new scheme.
“It’s a challenge no matter what you do in life, you know what I’m saying?” Sunseri said. “You go out here. You have high expectations and all that. I’ve got to make these guys better. The defensive staff has to make the guys better, and they’ve got to go out and as a collective group — coaches, players and all that — we’ve got to work together and get this thing right.”