KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley plans to take a more active role in the defense this week as the Volunteers attempt to upgrade a unit that has allowed the most points and yards per game of any Southeastern Conference team.
"Maybe I should have done this a little earlier, but I'm coming out of the offensive room and putting all my attention on defense, just sitting in and trying to help create solutions," Dooley said. "We're going to do some things differently schematically to help take some of the pressure off some of our players, to give them a better chance and also to reduce some of the (open) space that gets created."
The Vols (4-5) are coming off a 55-48 victory over Troy in which they allowed 721 yards, the highest single-game total ever by a Tennessee opponent. Tennessee's defense is on pace to rank statistically among the worst in at a school that started playing football in 1891.
"On the stat sheet it was a win, but the way we played, it didn't feel like it was a win," Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers said. "We played embarrassingly on defense."
Dooley didn't go into detail on the nature of the schematic changes the Vols might make Saturday against Missouri (4-5). Tennessee already has made lineup changes and has simplified the defense, but the results haven't improved. Dooley didn't rule out the possibility of having defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri move to the coaches' booth.
One change Tennessee won't make is to slow down its uptempo offense to give its defense more rest. Tennessee is ranked 18th nationally in yards per game (323.1) and tied for 24th in points per game (36.8). The Vols gained a school-record 718 yards against Troy.
"The reality is if we were playing our offense the way we played last year, (Troy) wouldn't have 700 yards," Dooley said. "They would have had about 75 plays instead of 100. But then I'm thinking to myself what I don't want to do is screw up something that's really good, and our offense is really good right now. I was prepared when we went to this (uptempo approach), that we weren't going to be as good on defense, but we've got to be better than what we are. I don't have an answer to that, other than when you make a commitment to go uptempo, you go uptempo."
Tennessee has given up 35.4 points and 483.1 yards per game. The Vols haven't given up that high a scoring average over the course of a full season since allowing 42.7 per game while playing a six-game schedule in 1893. Tennessee hasn't allowed that many yards per game over a full season since at least 1950, the earliest year Tennessee measures that statistic in its media guide.
The Vols have yielded at least 38 points in five straight games. Those totals have put plenty of pressure on Dooley and Sunseri.
Sunseri took over as Tennessee's defensive coordinator this season and switched the Vols to a 3-4 scheme, though they have used more four-man fronts lately. Tennessee ranked 28th nationally in total defense (340.5) and 36th in scoring defense (22.6) last season under former coordinator Justin Wilcox, who left for the same position at Washington. The Vols currently rank 112th in total defense and 107th in scoring defense.
"When you're in this position, you're going to get criticized if you don't get results," Dooley said. "It doesn't have anything to do with what's fair or right. It's just the way it is, like Bruce Hornsby and the Range. That's just the way it is."
Dooley is responding to that criticism by getting more involved.
"It probably would have been reactionary if I'd done it four weeks ago, but you look back and maybe I should have," Dooley said. "I'm not there saying I'm the guru. I'm not. I'm just there watching, listening, resolving any conflict. If I think we shouldn't do something, I'm saying we're not doing that. I'm getting a little more involved and (having) a little more dialogue with individual players on specific things."
The main complaint about Tennessee's defense last year was that it forced only 18 turnovers. Dooley said before the season he wanted a defense that would make things happen and wouldn't "bleed" to death by allowing extended drives.
Tennessee has 14 takeaways so far this year, and only two of them have come in the past four games. The Vols' defense has allowed far more big plays than it has produced.
"Bleeding to death looks good right now," said Dooley, who made a slashing motion to indicate how opponents have chopped up his defense this season. "I think that's what I'm getting to. I'd love to bleed."