College Football: Can Sal Sunseri Make the 3-4 Work at Tennessee?

New Tennessee defensive coordinator, Sal Sunseri has been pretty clear about two things, 1) he’s not going to put all his eggs in the 3-4 (the new defensive scheme he’s planning to implement for the Vols) basket, and 2) he expects his defense to be more than respectable in the SEC with nine starters returning from a squad that ranked 28th in the nation last season.

Despite the fact that Sunseri has spent better than six seasons under the rule of the might Nick Saban (helping the Tide win two National Championships during that time), I’m a bit skeptical of what how effective he will be as a defensive coordinator in his first year on the job. I don’t proclaim to know about these things, but some of his early comments could mislead people to think that he hasn’t quite settled confidently enough into his new role to be as convincing to the rest of the college football world as he is to the Vol Nation.

…”They (the Tennessee defensive players) need to go watch Alabama tape and see the things we did,” Sunseri said Wednesday, his first media appearance since he was hired by Derek Dooley on Jan. 13. “They need to go watch the Carolina Panthers (where Sunseri was a defensive line coach for seven years), because that’s what we’re going to do. I’ve been around some pretty good coaches, and we’re going to do what has won.”

…The task of studying, though, goes beyond the players and beyond Sunseri’s last two stops. Sunseri believes it’s important for his players to watch film of NFL players as a way of learning and simulating techniques and mechanics. He also said UT’s defensive coaches would increase their efforts in gathering NFL perspectives, whether it be by traveling to visit with NFL coaches at the league’s scouting combine later this month or hosting them in Knoxville.

“We’re going to utilize the people I know,” he said, “and we’re going to get better because we’re going to go study football.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into his statements, but Sunseri sounds like a guy who will need to grow into the role of defensive coordinator, not one whose come in with a philosophy of his own built upon what he’s learned as an assistant over the past decade.

While that point might come off petty to some, it does bear considering when you’re talking about a team where much is on the line for 2012—particularly for embattled head coach Derek Dooley who enters 2012 with as much heat on his seat as coach Mark Richt (his division counterpart) did in 2011.

Adding fuel to the fire, for Sunseri, are questions about whether or not he has the personnel to implement the system.

For one, the 3-4 needs a nose guard/tackle if it’s to be executed effectively, but the type of player needed to fill that role doesn’t always come easy. Sunseri did bring the promise of such a player along with him in 6-foot-7, 382-pound defensive tackle, Daniel McCullers, a junior college transfer who has better than average potential to be a force in the SEC as early as next season. 

But even with all his talent, McCullers will still be forced to prove that he can maintain his own against the bigger, stronger, and faster offensive lineman of the SEC. Even more, Sunseri will need the rest of his defense to get on board quickly and buy into what he’s selling.

For all the strides the Tennessee defense made last season, they lacked consistent focus. There were numerous occasions where players players didn’t look to be on the same page with each other  and that often led to poor execution (missed assignments, poor tackling, and lack of effort).  If the 3-4 is going to work in Knoxville, the players will have to embrace the team concept with vigor and Sunseri is going to have to sell this, now mostly veteran, group of players on the idea that they can compete with the best of the best in the SEC on a weekly basis—both offensively and defensively—so long as they remember to do so as a unit and not a bunch of talented individuals.

If he can’t do that quickly, the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 will be that much tougher and Sunseri’s reign could end up being a short one.

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I am not a 'journalist' by trade, nor do I present myself as such. I am a wife, mother, and passionate Georgia Bulldog fan. That's it. I write. You read.