Tuesday, July 29, 2014 · 2:40 a.m.

Low player-to-coach ratio paying dividends in Vols' new defense

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Tennessee defensive line coach John Palermo, 37-year coaching veteran, oversees coaching duties targeting the Vols' three down linemen in defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's newly installed 3-4 scheme. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

KNOXVILLE – The University of Tennessee advertises a 16-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio for their undergraduate students.

UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri can make a better pitch.

How does 3-to-1 sound? What about 2-to-1?

Tennessee's recent influx of defensive position coaches makes it possible. Each of Sunseri's defensive players are navigating Vols' spring practice with a 3-to-1 or a 2-to-1 player-to-position coach ratio. The extra attention is especially nice when installing a new defense.

“It's been outstanding,” Sunseri said. “The coaches have done a great job. It's like anything else, it's a small, 3-to-1 ratio, so any time you go 3-to-1, 2-to-1, these kids are getting more attention.”

Sunseri, who coaches the outside linebackers, chose to be Tennessee's full-time position coach in addition to coordinating the entire defense to help keep the ratios low. 

Former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, now in the same position at the University of Washington, oversaw the entire defense. That left the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary with just one coach each. 

“You know there's people that say, 'Ok there's one secondary coach,’” Sunseri said. “You can't do that, it's physically impossible. And for the linebackers, if you can coach two and I can coach two, it's 2-to-1, that's even better.”

The inside linebackers are instructed by former Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College assistant head coach Brandon Staley. Staley, listed as an administrative intern in the team’s official spring football media guide, is in his first season with the Vols. 

Veteran defensive line coach John Palermo has a lighter-than-normal load overseeing the three down linemen in the 3-4 scheme. The 37-year coaching veteran has been accustomed to working with four positions at a time, but sees the benefit of the low ratio.

“It's been a long time since I've worked with only three,” Palermo said. “I think it helps from a reps standpoint to be able to only have to rep three guys instead of four in individual drills.

“I think the way we're doing it is the way you have to in order to run this system.”

The secondary is the biggest benefactor of the new coaching setup. Former defensive backs coach Terry Joseph often was in charge of five players on the field as the Vols regularly used the nickel package in 2011. Now, the secondary coaching duties are split between safeties coach Josh Conklin and cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley.

Conklin’s eye for detail can be seen in everything from his perfectly tucked in shirt to his focus on teaching perfect technique in practice . He said the split secondary duties are essential for he and Ansley to be able to give instant feedback on the small details to the secondary.

“You get a chance to have two sets of eyes looking at four players,” Conklin explained. “(Ansley) can have his eyes more on the corners and I'm watching those safeties and I think where it helps out is the corrections get made a lot quicker. It's instant feedback. You get back in the film room and you see what your guys did wrong where you might not have seen it with just one set of eyes.”

A former defensive coordinator at The Citadel from 2010 to 2011, Conklin said he tried to structure his staff in a similar way when he was the head of the defense. 

“When we moved to the 3-4, we had an outside linebackers coach, an inside linebackers coach two guys in the secondary, and then we had our defensive line coach and we thought that was the best way to do it,” the newest member of the defensive staff explained.

Conklin isn’t the only other defensive mind that looks for small player-to-coach ratios. 

Sunseri said the concept became important to him while spending some 1-on-1 time with two of his former bosses—Alabama head coach Nick Saban and current Denver Broncos head coach John Fox.

“Being around those guys—that’s why it’s set up that way,” Sunseri said.

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