Thursday, December 18, 2014 · 11:39 p.m.

Tennessee finding defensive transition harder than expected

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KNOXVILLE – Total defense is measured by the average number of yards a team allows in a game.

It’s a statistical category in which SEC teams normally excel. Scan the top 25 teams in that category nationally and you’ll find Alabama, LSU, South Carolina Florida and Mississippi State. Even teams such as Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Missouri are in the top 50.

You have to go all the way to No. 87 to find Tennessee, a team that is behind Auburn and Kentucky – two programs with a combined two wins in 2012. Arkansas (No. 92) is the only SEC representative lower. The Vols’ defense is giving up 427.3 yards on average per game. Because of the amount of yardage given up, tt’s not surprising to see the Vols at No. 90 in scoring defense (31.5 points given up per game).

“We are obviously not playing very well on defense, that is not something we can hide,” coach Derek Dooley said. ”There is a lot of evaluation going on, continued evaluation. It starts with coaching; we can do a lot better job to help our players, and we are going to do that.”

The defensive problems start with the inability to stop the big play. Opponents have 35 plays of 20 or more yards against the Tennessee defense, including five plays of 70 or more yards.

Personnel and coaching are somewhat to blame, but, overall, it’s fair to say at this point that the transition from the base 4-3 to the base 3-4 defense has not gone as planned. Dooley brought in defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, a former linebackers coach at Alabama, to oversee the switch.

Some faces have changed. Gone is defensive lineman Malik Jackson, a fifth-round pick of the Denver Broncos last spring. Safety Brian Randolph (ACL) and cornerback Izauea Lanier (ineligible) are also out of the picture this season. But overall it's, a similar unit that finished No. 28 nationally in total defense under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcoxin 2011.

Still, Dooley, Sunseri and the Vols will push forward with their base 3-4 look, hoping improvement will come with time and greater understanding of the scheme.

“There is an execution component on some of the things that shouldn't be mistakes that we are making,” Dooley said. “And certainly we always evaluate our personnel and keep moving forward. We can play a lot better than we are playing and I think we will.”

Dooley will also take a more active role in the defensive coaching going forward. He’s been spending more time on the defensive side of the practice field during the portion of practice open to the media.

"I think it is important that I do, considering the results," he said. "I am not going to micromanage what we do and how we do it. I am certainly going to have a bigger say, because ultimately it is my responsibility.”

More touches for “CP”: After a big game at Mississippi State, receiver Cordarelle Patterson is now second in the SEC with 835 all-purpose yards. With starting running back Rajion Neal doubtful for this week, the Vols will continue to find him ways to get him touches on offense and special teams.

“We'll find (ways to get him the ball) because we have to get the ball in this guy's hands a lot,” Dooley said. “He has a real special set of skills. So we're going to keep finding ways to get him the ball, it'd be crazy if we didn't.”

Jordan Williams moving up: Sophomore LB Jordan Williams could see his most extensive playing time on Saturday with Curt Maggitt (toe, stinger) questionable. Williams has appeared in four games this season and has been credited with four tackels.

“We need to get him going because he is a fast-twitch big guy with some disruptive ability,” Dooley said of the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Williams. “We are still trying to figure out the right pieces."

Croom, Thomas out for the season: Dooley confirmed that freshman wide receiver Jason Croom and freshman defensive back Tino Thomas both have shoulder issues that will need medical attention, and both will be out for the year.

Croom’s surgery has been confirmed, while Dooley said Thomas might need an operation. Neither has seen extensive playing time this season, and both will apply for a medical redshirt.

Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.

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