What will new defensive cordinator Sal Sunseri's defense look like?
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley hired Sunseri shortly after he helped guide Alabama to the 2011 NCAA national championship. Sunseri, who served as the assistant head coach and linebackers coach at Alabama, was known for being a disciple of the 3-4 defense, a vastly different system than the 4-3 scheme that Tennessee has employed for decades. In the 3-4, there are three down lineman and four linebackers, thus creating a different look at angles and blitzing packages for defenders.
Before the spring, Sunseri stated that, while not all of his system had been picked up by the team, the defense was working hard to implement the new style of play as much as they could, with Sunseri's previous stops being an example of the success that it could bring.
"We need to watch Alabama tapes to see the things we did at Alabama," Sunseri said. "And they need to see Carolina Panthers' tape, because that's what we're going to do."
One thing that will help Sunseri's transition is the personnel that the Vols have fit well into his system.
The Vols have an excess of depth at the linebacker positions with Freshman All-American A.J. Johnson, sophomore Curt Maggitt and senior Herman Lathers, who sat out all of last season with an ankle injury. All three have the talent to perfrom in the SEC and should thrive in the same system that produced All-American linebackers like Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Rolando McClain at Alabama.
Who will play on the defensive line, specifically at nose tackle, which is essential in a 3-4 defense?
Derek Dooley's tenure as coach for UT has been mired by one consistent problem, lack of depth. And that lack has been most evident on the defensive line, where walk-ons and former offensive liners have become staples as rotational players.
This year, however, Dooley seems to finally have the necessary depth to not only implement a whole D-line, but also an effective one at that as he has publicly stated that he wants eight to ten guys to be in the rotation.
Returning starters on the defensive line include Jacques Smith, who has the speed necessary to come off the edge, and will probably see time as a stand-up rush linebacker as well, and Maurice Couch, who will probably man one of the other defensive end positions.
Two players to watch out for are junior college transfers Darrington Sentimore, who at 6-foot 2-inch, 288 pounds, is the perfect fit for the 3-4 defensive end position, and Daniel McCullers, who tips the scale at 380 pounds.
McCullers' arrival comes at a key position for the Vols, who with their transition to the 3-4 need a lane-clogging nose tackle more than ever.
"It's of great signifigance," Sunseri said. "When you have a big body in there and you can force double teams, that allows the linebackers to run free. And that guy has to be able to dominate the center and make plays. That's what we're hoping for from him (McCullers)."
Can the secondary improve its pass coverage?
The Vols finished last season ranked twelfth overall in the country in pass defense, surrendering 177.8 yards through the air a game. But those numbers are wildly inflated. The truth of the matter is, opponents found it much more easy to just run the ball on the Vols (opponents only attempted 307 passes against the team in 12 games, on the other hand, Tyler Bray threw 247 in seven), and almost ignore the pass, a notion backed up by the fact that the Vols only intercepted 9 passes on the entire season.
To win games, the Vols will need to exploit the plus/minus of their turnover margin, and to do that, they will need their defensive backs to step up in coverage, especially senior Prentiss Waggner and sophomore Brian Randolph, who are the two best players in coverage the Vols have.
Without the corners and safeties stepping up in coverage, teams will find it just as easy to run over the Vols restructured defense as they did last year.