Head coaches with offensive backgrounds typically give the defensive reins to a hand-picked coordinator and trust he'll do the job. Things are a bit different at Tennessee this week, though. Head man Derek Dooley, who hasn't coached defense since he was a grad assistant at Georgia in 1996, is monitoring every defensive drill after seeing his team surrender a program record 721 yards of total offense in last Saturday's 55-48 defeat of Troy.
You have to wonder: Do Vol defenders see Dooley's move as a stroke of genius or an act of desperation?
"I don't think they think of it as an act of desperation," safeties coach Josh Conklin said following Wednesday's practice. "He is active all the time. He's just showed his face (in defensive drills) a little bit more. The way we presented it to our guys is that, 'Hey, guys, what we're doing right now is not the way to continue to go.'
"One answer right now is to put another set of eyes on it,(with Dooley suggesting) 'I want to get more involved in it, I want to make sure you guys understand that the defensive side matters to me — which it does; he's been active all season long. Our guys understand that."
If nothing else, Dooley's presence seems to have added some pep to the step of Vol defenders on the practice field this week.
|Defensive line coach John Palermo (left) is ready to see the work at Haslam Field translate to weekends on Shields-Watkins Field.|
Conklin also believes defenders are responding well to Dooley's presence, noting: "Today was probably one of our best practices all season. It was clean; our guys were all into it. We were competitive with the offense, so those were good things to see.
"I think they've found a little bit of new energy because he brings a fresh way of teaching it at times and a fresh way of getting guys to respond to an adverse situation, which we find ourselves in right now."
It's an adverse situation, all right. Tennessee ranks 107th among the NCAA's 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense (35.44 points per game), 112th in total defense (483.11 yards per game) and 115th in pass defense (296.78 yards per game).
Clearly, this is not a good time to be one of the Vols' defensive coaches.
"It's hard," Conklin said. "I can't deny that. It's tough, and you get frustrated. You get aggravated. You don't understand why things are going the way they are but you just keep looking at it and keep finding the solutions."
Defensive line coach John Palermo is more angry than frustrated. His troops are not giving him on game day what they're taught to do in practice all week.
"I don't think it's a frustration as much as it is being ticked off about not doing things the right way," Palermo said. "I'm not frustrated as much as I'm ticked off because I know they're capable of doing better. When they don't do things like they're supposed to, it ticks you off."
Although his cornerbacks were burned often as Troy passed for 496 yards, Ansley is surprisingly philosophical.
"We had some guys in position to make some plays but you've got to give a lot of credit to Troy," he said. "They threw it and caught the ball very well ... about as well as anybody we've played.
"They made some plays. We did, too. They made some big plays, and that's how you get that kind of yardage total: They catch a lot of deep balls on you. We covered some of 'em but we didn't cover enough of 'em."
Ansley thinks the visiting Trojans may have been more excited about playing last Saturday.
|Although defense is not his forte, Dooley is doing what he can to improve things on the defensive side of the football.|
"There was a point when it was 28-10 that we could've changed the way they thought, broke their spirit a little bit. But when you let an underdog hang around and hang around, then they get into the fourth quarter thinking they can win."
Given how miserably they played, Tennessee's defensive players are feeling a little discouraged these days. So are Tennessee's defensive coaches, although they're determined not to let it show at practice.
"Your job as coach is to keep your guys motivated when they get down," Conklin said. "Obviously, when you go through a tough trial like we have the last few weeks you've got to find a way to get your guys up. Each guy responds differently. You're always trying to tap into that emotional side and how to get 'em motivated."
"You close ranks and you march forward," he said. "That's what you do. I learned that from Coach Holtz. Obviously, it wasn't good on Saturday. You can pick out some positives from the game but, overall, we had too many breakdowns that led to big plays. And, when you have big plays, things like that happen."
Sometimes you let so many big plays happen that your head coach starts showing up on the defensive practice field. Perhaps that will prove helpful. Conklin thinks so.
"I think Coach Dooley coming over to the defensive side has been really beneficial for us," the Vol aide said. "We're making steps in the right direction. I really do think that. This thing's not over for three weeks. Our goal is to go out and continue to put the best product on the field that we can."