It’s never a good thing when Sal Sunseri comparisons are brought up when discussing the Tennessee defense.
The former UT defensive coordinator, who lasted just one season in 2012 after overseeing a disastrous transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 under Derek Dooley, has become synonymous with bad defense in Knoxville.
Unfortunately for current defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, one of Sunseri’s records – and not the good kind – fell on Saturday against Missouri. The Tigers piled up 740 yards of total offense in the 63-37 loss, topping Troy’s mark in 2012 when Sunseri was DC.
Teams have also put up several of the biggest rushing performances against UT in history this season. Missouri became the third team in the last four FBS matchups for UT to put up over 400 yards on the ground, joining Kentucky and Alabama. Throw in the A&M game, and UT has now given up at least 350 yards on the ground to four different teams this season.
Those numbers are ugly, no question. But Butch Jones continues to downplay those stats because they’re not as important as the only one that truly matters in college football – the final scoreboard.
“Well it’s all about winning the football game,” Jones said following Saturday’s win. “I thought we made some critical stops at some critical moments. We also took the football away, which was big. We talk a lot about taking the football away. So there were some things to build upon. But obviously, I think it starts first with tackling. We did not run our feet. There were too many missed tackles. We were lunging. We ran our gaps a number of times and just missed the tackle, so a lot of it sometimes is fundamentals.”
A lot goes into the defensive failures. Some, indeed, can be traced back to basic fundamentals – missed tackles, poor alignments, bad angles and other details. And some of it clearly points back to the massive injury bug that’s affected that side of the ball, one that has hurt all three levels of the defense, but has decimated the defensive tackle position, where the Vols have been down to, at times, just one scholarship player at that position and have had to move players in from other positions to help out.
And there are certainly many reasons to be concerned with that.
It starts with next week’s matchup, where the Vols will face Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, one of the top backs in the conference who has already hit the century mark in rushing yardage this season. Whoever UT’s postseason opponent is will also have about a month to look at the film and imagine countless ways to burn the Vols via the ground.
Big picture, these issues have taken some of the luster off of Shoop’s hiring, one that was understandably hailed as a top offseason addition in college football given his past numbers at Vandy and Penn State. Only time will tell if this stretch is an anomaly primarily caused by injuries or a sign that he can’t get the job done in Knoxville.
But for the time being, UT is more focused on its three-game winning streak than the piles of yardage that opponents are putting up.
“I told you last week that we’re not going to win the stat battle,” Jones said. “It’s not going to be pretty, but I thought our team really rallied. I liked the way that we came out in the second half. I challenged them a little bit at halftime. We knew it was going to be this type of game. Missouri has a very explosive offense.”