Tennessee Volunteers head coach Derek Dooley reacts to an officials call during the first half of the game against the Florida Gators at Neyland Stadium. Credit: Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE
David Climer, Tennessean
On face, you can't blame Derek Dooley for not wanting to be closely linked to Tennessee 's lousy defense. It's guilt by association.
But the buck stops with the bucks. When you're getting paid so much ($2 million this year) and have a buyout ($5 million) that guarantees a financial soft landing if you get canned, you should be driving the bus, not throwing people under it.
Dooley's reluctance to take ownership of UT's historically bad defense (the Vols are on pace to set a school record for the most yardage and points allowed) is one of his most glaring flaws as a head coach. Rather than trying to distance himself from the problem, he should take full responsibility.
After the 38-35 loss at South Carolina last Saturday, Dooley raised some eyebrows when he said he had not spent any extra time with first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri or the players despite such obvious problems on that side of the ball.
"I spend all my focus on offense and special teams," he said.
On Monday, he clarified his role by saying he provides "big picture" guidance and has gotten more involved with the defense each week.
"I think the biggest thing is making sure we're all on the same page within the staff," he said. "... We're here to find solutions to help the players play the best they can."
Given the defensive ineptitude, it should be all hands on deck. The product he is putting on the field suggests Sunseri is in over his head.
Word on the street is that Dooley's first choice for the position was Kevin Steele, who was defensive coordinator at Clemson in 2009-11. Steele, an assistant at UT in 1982 and again in '87, was Nick Saban's first defensive coordinator at Alabama in 2007.
But Dooley couldn't offer a multiyear contract to Steele in the aftermath of Clemson's meltdown in the Orange Bowl, where West Virginia hung 70 points on Steele's defense. So he turned to Sunseri, who got a three-year, $2.4 million deal.
It's starting to look like Sunseri is to Dooley what Dave Clawson was to Phillip Fulmer. In 2008, Fulmer faced a critical decision as he hired a new offensive coordinator. He settled on Clawson, who was then head coach at Richmond.
It was a disaster. Rather than adapt to the personnel and scheme that had been productive previously, Clawson installed his own system. Running what became known as the "Clawfense," the Vols averaged just 254.5 yards per game, the lowest in 43 years.
Fulmer got fired. Clawson resurfaced as head coach at Bowling Green State, where his team is 6-3 this season.
Since arriving at UT, Sunseri took personnel that had been recruited and developed for a 4-3 alignment and tried to shoehorn players into his preferred 3-4 scheme. It simply hasn't translated. UT currently ranks dead last in the SEC in total defense at 453.4 yards per game.
"We aren't going to sit here and defend anything we're doing, because statistically we can't," Dooley said. "... The question is, what's the problem and how do we fix it?"
Dooley could start by adjusting what the Vols are doing on offense. When your defense is struggling this badly, why not shorten the game? The longer your offense is on the field, the less your defense is exposed. With that in mind, Dooley should abandon the no-huddle offense. He should run the ball more to take time off the clock.
Granted, the no-huddle has helped the Vols put up points by keeping opposing defenses off balance. But through eight games, it is abundantly clear the Vols can't outscore their defensive shortcomings.
David Climer's columns appear on Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Monday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@