KNOXVILLE – Tennessee coach Derek Dooley showed up for his weekly Monday press conference and it was mostly business as usual.
No resignation, no visible anger or frustration and no talk of sweeping personnel changes on or off the field.
Fixing the defense, which is giving up an average of 42.2 points per SEC game, was one topic on which Dooley focused.
“The reality is our statistics; we aren't going to sit here and defend anything we are doing, because statistically we can't,” he said. “ I think the important thing is, and it is what I told (defensive coordinator) Sal (Sunseri), we have to get our focus on solutions and playing better next week. That is all you can put your energy on. You can't look back and beat yourself up, you can't lose confidence in what we are going and how we teaching it.”
Conceding the big play continues to be the main issue for Sunseri’s defense. South Carolina had 11 plays go for 20 yards or more in its 38-35 win over the Vols (3-5, 0-5 SEC) on Saturday.
Dooley said the defense is operating at about an 80-percent success rate. About 60 plays a game are going well defensively, but around 15 big plays per game are wreaking havoc. Dooley laid out three reasons the defense isn’t getting it done on those 15 plays (paraphrased):
• The coaches making poor calls that make it tough for the defense to be successful on a given play.
• The players scrambling to get the call or to get set before the snap. He said that’s on the players and the coaches.
• The call is good but the players mess up on technique or make a mental error.
“We are a little bit of a jack-of-all trades, master of nothing,” Dooley said. “And it is so important that we start mastering a few things and get good at [a few things] to hang our hat on so we can try to get those 15 snaps down to about six or seven and at least have a chance."
Dooley will continue to actively help coach the defense, but he did also voice some level of support for Sunseri, saying he hadn’t considered turning play-calling duties over to another assistant coach.
"It's not really as much the play calls as it is the way we are coaching it and executing it,” he said. “It is the implementation that matters more than anything. I'm not going to go down that path."
Heart-to-Hart: Dooley didn't go into any specifics about his job situation, but did say that he is in regular communication with Tennessee AD Dave Hart.
"Dave has been great, very professional," Dooley said. "He obviously wants to know my take on where we are, what we are doing well and what we aren't doing well and how we are going to fix it."
Dooley, who was the head football coach and athletic director at Louisiana Tech from 2008-10, joked that he used to meet with the head coach every day at Tech. On a more serious note, he discussed the importance of keeping lines of communication open with his superiors.
"I think it is important every week that you have dialogue with your boss when you are in season," he said. "It is something I have always wanted to do, whether we are winning or losing. I think is important for the boss to have that kind of dialogue so you have a real pulse of what is going on. It is good."
Injury update: Running back Rajion Neal (ankle) and right guard Zach Fulton are the only two injury concerns for this week. Dooley listed both as “day-to-day.”
Neal, the team’s leading rusher, sat out the last two weeks, while Fulton missed last week. Marlin Lane has been starting at running back and Alex Bullard filled in at right guard against the Gamecocks.
South Carolina notes: A couple of notes out of South Carolina that are related to its game with Tennessee last weekend:
• There’s some level of good news for running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a gruesome knee injury in the second quarter against the Vols. A release from the school’s doctor said he tore multiple ligaments in his right knee, but there were no fractures or additional injuries. Coach Steve Spurrier said on Monday Lattimore could redshirt in 2013 in the hopes of a 2014 return.
• Quarterback Connor Shaw was chosen the SEC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Vols. Shaw completed 22-of-32 passes for a career-high 356 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 33 yards and an additional touchdown.
• Dooley said several plays from the game were sent to the SEC league office for review. There was controversy surrounding South Carolina's final offensive drive. It appeared Shaw stepped out of bounds on a third-down scramble, but the officials kept the clock running, forcing the Vols to burn their final timeout.
Missouri kickoff time, network set: The Vols will play Missouri at home on Nov. 10 at 12:21 p.m. ET in a game televised by the SEC Network.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.