KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s Jacques Smith was a defensive end. He is now an outside linebacker.
That’s just one of the changes made when Sal Sunseri, the former assistant head coach in charge of linebackers at Alabama, left Tuscaloosa to become the Vols’ defensive coordinator.
Sunseri brought his 3-4 scheme to Knoxville and that meant Smith the former USA Today All-American and the state’s No. 1 prep prospect in Knoxville News-Sentinel ratings, would be moving, too, albeit just a yard or so on the football field.
“At first, I was shocked,” Smith said Saturday at the Vols’ picture day in Neyland Stadium. “I didn’t know how to take it. I thought it would be too much, but coach Sunseri showed me it wasn’t too much to handle.”
Sunseri needed to tell Smith just one thing: he would still be pursue the passer from his new position, labeled the “Jack” linebacker in Sunseri terminology.
“The position allows me to rush the passer, just like I have been doing and drop into coverage a little bit,” said Smith, who prepped at Ooltewah High School. “It’s a big change for me because I’ve never been in space as much as they’re putting me in space now. But, ultimately my goal still is to get to the quarterback.”
Smith played in all 12 games last season, starting eight, and was credited with 35 tackles. He had 7.5 tackles for loss, including one sack, hurried the quarterback six times and forced a fumble.
Yet, Smith said he wasn’t all that happy playing with a hand down.
“I wasn’t as comfortable at defensive end as I am now at linebacker,” he said. “I feel like I’m more suitable at linebacker, especially body-wise and weight-wise. This is a different way for me to attack the offense and they won’t know every single time where I’m coming from.”
A 6-foot-2-inch, 244-pound junior, Smith was an undersized defensive end and paid for it, often having to fight double teams against behemoth Southeastern Conference tackles.
“That was the hardest part about the 4-3 defense,” he said. “Even though I was about 248 or 250, I was still getting doubled. In the SEC, your average tackle is about 315 to 330, and they get even bigger than that if you went against some good ones.
“Playing a double team at my size against those big guys is not much fun. I had some long days and nights.”
Vols coach Derek Dooley said Smith is most effective against a “spread setting,” because he plays a little “looser.”
“He’s got a real good quickness and twitch where he can disrupt an offense,” Dooley said. “Where it gets tough on Jacques is when they tighten him down and big bodies are double-teaming him because he’s not as big.”
Sunseri, part of Alabama’s national championship teams in 2009 and 2011 and with seven years of NFL coaching experience, calls Smith a hybrid defender.
“He’s too small to be a 4-3 defensive end and the right size to be a linebacker in the 3-4,” Sunseri said. “When you have quickness and speed and know how to utilize it, you can take advantage of people.
“Sometimes speed’s good enough, but when everybody adjusts their chin straps and start pounding on you, you better be able to match up.”
Sunseri has been coaching for 27 years and he’s seen just about everything an offense can throw at a defense. In addition to Alabama and the Carolina Panthers, Sunseri had coaching stops at Michigan State, LSU, Alabama A&M, Louisville, Illinois State, Iowa Wesleyan and at Pittsburgh – he also played for the Panthers.
So, he knows how to attack a smash-mouth offense in the Big Ten or the finesse of a well-oiled spread team in the SEC, and Smith is clearly the beneficiary of Sunseri’s knowledge.
Smith didn’t arrive at Tennessee void of sterling credentials. He had 79 tackles (21 for loss), 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries his senior season at Ooltewah.
In his first season in Knoxville, Smith earned a selection to the Coaches’ All-SEC Freshman team. He had a season-high five tackles against LSU and was one of seven rookies to play in every game in 2010.
In two seasons, Smith has 59 tackles, including 13 for loss.
There’s no doubt Sunseri Is looking for big things from Smith in 2012.
“I’m very proud of him,” said Sunseri, whose two sons are playing college ball, one at Pittsburgh and one at Alabama. “His adaptations are going really well and he’s bought in and giving great effort.”
Wide receiver Justin Hunter has been going against the Vols’ 3-4 hard throughout preseason practice. He’s got a pretty good handle on what’s ahead for Tennessee opponents this season, starting with North Carolina State in Atlanta on Aug. 31.
“It’s a tough defense to go against because they’ve got four linebackers out there,” said Hunter, healthy after missing most of 2011 after suffering a knee injury against Florida. “You can’t run much of a short (passing) game inside with slants.
“They’re competing against us, one of the best receiving corps in the SEC and nation. If they can hang with us, they can hang with anybody.”
Hunter, a 6-4, 200-pound junior with 33 career catches for 729 yards and nine touchdowns, believes Smith can be a big factor in the Vols’ defensive success.
“His size and speed scares me,” Hunter said. “My freshman year I couldn’t get over how big he was. I mean, he was huge and I was thinking he needed to be playing linebacker. He’s going to be a real good one because he’s big and physical. Plus, he can really run.”
Smith said his biggest challenge in making the switch has been getting his reads down, learning more about offensive terminologies and recognizing what certain formations mean.
Smith and Sunseri agree that player progress in those areas have been outstanding.
And, neither player nor coach believes added responsibilities of a new position won’t affect his No. 1 on-field attribute – aggressiveness.
“No,” he said. “I know more football now. I’m basically able to read all my keys and determine how aggressive I can be on certain plays. Coach Sal has worked with me on that the entire time he’s been here.
“It’s not always about aggression. Sometimes I might need to be more passive aggressive and use my strength.”
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com)