KNOXVILLE – Although Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley was not at Wednesday morning’s practice while recovering from hip surgery, his presence was still felt on Haslam Field where it was business as usual for the Vols.
“We ran our stuff, we did what we had to do and everything went as well as it could,” UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. “Everybody wants Coach Dooley out there, but because of the seriousness of that hip he had to get it done. The kids were energetic, they were enthusiastic and they practiced like they were supposed to. They stayed to the standard of the practice.”
Dooley, who underwent a surgical procedure to repair a fractured right hip on Tuesday afternoon, will coach from the press box at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville on Saturday, but the Vols don’t expect it to affect their typical game day coaching duties much, if at all.
“It’s really easy because he is going to be up in the press box talking to me when the defense is on the field and he is going to be talking to one of the other coaches on offense when the offense is on the field we are going to manage it just fine,” Sunseri said. “Coach has it totally managed, we’ve already talked about it as a staff. We have a plan and we will execute our plan.”
“He’s on the headset with us throughout the game. Whether he is standing right next to you or up in the press box, you are still hearing the same language, the same verbiage and you are just going through the day and managing what is going on. Of course we would love to have down him on the field, but because of the injury and what the heck is going on, for his sake, he needs to be up in the press box. We will manage it down on the field.”
Although the assistant coaches will certainly be able to manage the on-field responsibilities, there is a reason the head coach is typically roaming the sideline rather than sitting upstairs.
“I think the one thing maybe that you miss that some people don’t see is that Coach Dooley has an opportunity to look a guy in the eye and talk to him to see kind of how they are feeling and how they are reacting and what they need to hear,” assistant coach Josh Conklin said. “When you get up in the press box it is a completely different world and the emotional part of it is taken out a little bit.”
While being in the press box will limit Dooley’s emotional interaction with the players, Conklin was quick to point out that it will also give him a different perspective when looking at the game from a more analytical angle.
“You have to look at it as a positive too,” Conklin said. “He will probably be able to see some things offensively and see some things defensively that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily be able to see.”
Instead of looking his players in the eye, Dooley will now have the opportunity to work a little more closely with a few of his assistant coaches instead. For one, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is looking forward to the new experience.
“I have felt like a few times that the head coach has been sitting next to me in the press box, but I have never had him there before,” Chaney said. “I am looking forward to it. It will be a great experience and I have no issue with it. Coach and I have a great relationship, we talk throughout the game all the time, he will just be sitting right beside me.”
Football can be a tension-filled game and Chaney knows that could lead to some interesting conversations on Saturday.
“We will manage, we are grown-ups,” Chaney said. “I am sure he will yell at me, I’ll yell at him and we will get right through it and move on with the game. That is what happens. I won’t yell at him, he’s my boss, you know how that goes.”
PALERMO HAS EXPERIENCED THIS BEFORE
One member of the Vols' coaching staff has been through a very similar situation as to what the team will go through on Saturday with the head coach in the press box.
Defensive line coach John Palermo was at Wisconsin in 1999 when then-head coach Barry Alvarez was sidelined with knee surgery. Palermo was the assistant head coach during his time with the Badgers and saw increased duties with Alvarez limited.
"I was acting head coach for about three games," said Palermo, who was on the staff at Wisconsin from 1991-2005. "It was a little different. For the first game, (Alvarez) was in the Mayo Clinic and we talked on the telephone -- he had a feed to his room. Then the next two games he was up in the press box. Which he pretty much ran the show. On the field, I took care of things for him."
That one game which Palermo served as interim head coach was on October 9, 1999 and the Badgers pulled out a 20-17 victory at Minnesota.
Back 13 years ago, Palermo was very clear that he knew who was in charge even though he wasn't present at the Metrodome.
"This is the character of Barry Alvarez's football team," Palermo told the media after the game in 1999. "It's not my football team. I'm just one of many assistant coaches that follow the plan that he set forth."
Fast forward to 2012 and Palermo has the same message.
"Coach Dooley has things squared away the way he wants to do things," Palermo said on Wednesday. "Practice was run just like he was there. He gave us the practice plan, so we did it exactly like he wanted us to.
“(At the game) it's going to be business as usual, exactly like it has been every week."
The Vols can hope to replicate Palermo's success with Wisconsin, as the Badgers went 3-0 with wins over the No. 25 Gophers, Indiana and No. 11 Michigan State on the way to winning the Rose Bowl with Ron Dayne and company.
"We did pretty good," Palermo said with a smile.
TIME TO FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE
Mississippi State and Tennessee are very similar teams heading into this meeting in Starkville; offensive coordinator Jim Chaney knows that.
Both offensive lines have allowed just three sacks this season while both defenses have made nine interceptions, and both stats lead the SEC in 2012.
Tennessee's offense has put up bigger numbers, 506.6 total offensive yards per game as compared to the Bulldogs' 404.6. But the UT defense has also allowed more yards of total offense (425.8) compared to MSU (325.6).
The meeting between the two teams will be a dogfight; and not just between Smokey and Bully the Bulldog.
"They play their butts off, they play very hard," said Chaney about the MSU defense. "One thing that will show up will be effort. All 11 guys get the football. It is hard to find a play that you don't see all of those guys flying to the ball. They play extremely hard and we have to fight fire with fire and play just as hard."
Mississippi State's defense features some large cornerbacks, in 6-1 Darius Slay (4 interceptions) and 6-2 Johnthan Banks (3).
"I wish they were 5-4 and 5-5," said Chaney. "They are opportunistic, have great instincts and they see what is happening in front of them because they keep the play in front of them a lot. They play the ball in the air exceptionally well, they have good ball skills, and they are everything you are looking for in a large corner."
The large corners will have a tough test on their hands matching up with Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. The duo, along with Chaney's play calling and Bray's arm, has created some outstanding touchdowns for the Vols this season.
Something Mississippi State knows a little bit about.
"All I can say is that I have spoken to Sal about it," said Chaney. "They are very creative on the offensive side of the ball and some of their creativity creates some problems so we have had to be ready for everything. We are excited about those opportunities to go out and play. We do a lot on our side of the ball on offense so our defense are prepared for a quite a bit of stuff. We hopefully have them ready to go from our side of it."
What it will all come down to is the line of scrimmage and the battle of the two offensive lines.
"I think it is the key to everything in the SEC," said Chaney. "The line of scrimmage plays are going to win or lose ball games. You feel pretty comfortable as a play caller when that is getting done. The kids up front against Georgia had a lot of confidence about them and were hitting them pretty good. We feel good about running the ball and we hope or anticipate that it will be the same. Our kids up front have been playing a lot of football, they are juniors now, and we have one senior up front. They have played a lot, they have seen a lot and our expectation is that they will go out and do well again this upcoming Saturday."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHANEY
(On the line blocking for the running backs)
“Tremendous amount. As a play caller I don’t feel as obligated to throw the ball as often as I have done in the past. As long as we are running the ball efficiently, it is comfortable to stay with it. As long as you are not it is hard to keep going. That is a patience that personally I have always struggled with, but I am getting better with that as our line continues to improve run blocking.”
(On the run game)
“I don’t know. I felt pretty comfortable handing the ball off most of the season. I feel like that is who we are and it gives the O-Linemen a chance to hit somebody so I am excited about that.”
(On what Troy did to rack up so many yards against Mississippi State)
“They lined up a lot in open formations, played at a rapid pace, handed it off, threw the ball in the perimeter, they did a lot of nice things, Troy did. That is who they are and they played a good ball game down in Troy that day. We do similar things, but we have a more physical game lining it up with the fullback and tight end style offense that we like also. They don’t do a lot of that, they are a four-wide team.”
(On Rajion Neal)
“Quite a bit. He is getting more disciplined. The more reps that he gets on particular runs the better his vision is and the discipline that he has. I think we saw a lot of that in the past ball game that we hit the same play several times and as the game went on he grew more mature with the play and handled the play better.”
(On Zach Rogers and seniors)
“I think you are dealing with maturity, he is a senior, and health, he’s stayed healthy. That is the key for Zach. In his past he has had a ding here and a ding there that has affected him because he is not a large guy. So when he gets hurt it bothers him. So far he has stayed relatively health, and he is a senior. Those are neat. I look out at the field and see a few seniors. It warms my heart. I like it. Seniors are neat people; I haven’t known that in a while.”
(On what happens with Dooley’s sideline responsibility)
You will have to refer those questions to him. Right now we have been status quo with everything that we have been doing. His responsibilities on the sidelines, he handles all of the timeouts and I am sure that he has a plan for that. We will discuss that at a later date. We are ready to go. Everybody else is doing exactly what we always do.
(On rushing more)
“I felt the same way. He was sensing that from the line. The line and running backs were excited to go and hit them and keeping playing football. Didn’t surprise me a bit. Quarterbacks are great. When they are mature enough to handle it, they sense what is going on and understand if you can win at the line of scrimmage, it makes their life good. Tyler is at that stage of his career, he understood what was going on and the line was wanting to be fed, so we tried to feed them.”
(On not forcing the ball)
“I think the key is just patience, taking what the defense gives you and don’t force the ball. We have had some issues late in games trying to make too many plays and trying to get Tyler to calm down and realize sometimes there is just not a play to be made. Tyler believes in his own skill so much that he will try and force some things once in a while and we are trying to get that out of him. All-in-all, the Mississippi State secondary is good, they are opportunistic, they have great ball skills and we have to watch ourselves. If we throw it up to them, they are going to make the play.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On Mississippi State)
“Mississippi State is a sound football team. They run the ball extremely well, they have play-action they hit you with, they have explosive playmakers, their running back hits good runs, their play-action game, [Chad] Bumphis is a good receiver and all that. They are playing very sound football, they are not making any mistakes and they are creating turnovers on the other side of the ball.”
(On testing out new players in the secondary in practice)
“We go through each week and we give everybody an opportunity to play. Everybody gets reps. Whether it was the first week or this week, it really didn’t matter. Everybody is getting a chance to play so gets a chance to get out there and show what they can do.”
(On the opportunity for other players to earn playing time)
“The same guys have been getting repped the same amount of reps. Once they start learning and being able to apply it, then they will play. Until they learn it and if they what the heck they are doing, they aren’t going to play. The bottom line is that guys who know what to do and how to do it will play.”
(On Jaron Toney)
“Jaron Toney has done a great job. He’s made on plays on special teams and usually I look at things really simple. When a young man goes out and starts making plays on special teams and starts getting noticed, then he is ready to get in there in the fire on first and second and third down. The kid has made some plays, he has done a good job and he will have an opportunity to get out there and show what he can do.”
(On managing Curt Maggitt)
“Managing him has been tough. We are resting him and he is ready to go. Young kids playing in this conference is tough. You think about last year, him and A.J. [Johnson] going through the whole SEC as freshmen and playing, it is hard. You know the physicality in this league. The bottom line is that I think he is better. He is more rested and his toe is feeling better, so things are good.”
(On the team’s improvement)
“I think this past week we got better. I think right now, coming off today’s practice I feel good about it. Those guys went out there and they practiced really, really well. They executed some things extremely well. I’m excited and I think they are excited and want to get out and play football on Saturday night.”
(On how far the defense is from eliminating big plays)
“I can’t answer that. When you go out there and things happen every day. We would like to go out the next [seven weeks] and cut all of them out, but in football there are explosive plays. You try to eliminate the explosive plays but there are going to be one or two. You don’t want more than what we’ve had.”
(On the progress of LaDarrell McNeil)
“I am really excited about LaDarrell. He has done a great job this past week. That young man is flying around making plays and he is going to be a heck of a player at the University of Tennessee. I think he brings a level of talent. This kid is extremely quick, extremely fast and has football instincts. When you have those type of intangibles, you are going to play for a long time, whether it is here or the next level.”
(On who McNeil reminds him of)
“I hate making comparisons. He is LaDarrell McNeil. He is a dang good football player, he was a great recruit coming out of Texas, he is here at the University of Tennessee and he is going to make us better.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)