You've all heard the news by now. Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri has agreed to become the next defensive coordinator for the University of Tennessee. The Vols got their man, and Sunseri earns a coveted raise and a lofty new title. It appears to be a real win for both parties.
However, it does raise an important question, and it's one that Vols fans are likely to tirelessly pondered. Don't worry Vols fans, unlike a certain nappy-bearded Nashvillian, I'm not here to rain on your parade. Football is a game of emulation, and though Tennessee fans should continue to hate Alabama to its core, there's no shame in imitating the success of the Crimson Tide (no matter how filthy it feels.)
The question is simple and uncontroversial, but is soon to be the most hotly debated topic in Knoxville. Will Sunseri make the switch to the 3-4, or will the 52-year old continue to base the Tennessee defense out of the 4-3? Hell, maybe Sunseri follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Justin Wilcox and continues to build towards multiplicity.
Sunseri has experience in both the 3-4 (at Alabama) and the 4-3 (with the Carolina Panthers), and in the long term it's anyone's guess. But in the short term, the answer lies within the roster.
It's easy to think that because the Vols have been mostly based out of the 4-3 for what seems like an eternity that the Vols will continue to utilize a four-man front. However, specifically with today's addition of mammoth DT Daniel McCullers, the Vols are a lot closer to the 3-4 than one would think.
In the front seven, the Vols seem to have the necessary size and depth to run the 3-4 from the outset, presuming McCullers (a JUCO star) is an immediate contributor. Soon to be sophomore Allan Carson gives the Vols another "true" nose tackle on the roster.
With 300-pounders Mo Couch and Daniel Hood, the Vols have two contributors with the potential to slide inside to the nose, or to line up at the five-technique defensive end position (a glorified defensive tackle utilized in the 3-4.) Add in Darrington Sentimore (JUCO signee already on campus), Corey Miller, Marlon Walls, and incoming freshman Danny O'Brien (who also has the size and strength to slide to nose) and the Vols have plenty of bodies on the defensive line.
Traditional 4-3 weakside defensive ends Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon seem to be the most likely candidates to move to Jack linebacker (the rush linebacker position), with Curt Maggitt having both the size and the quickness to make an impact at Sam and Jack. A.J. Johnson, Dalton Santos, and a bulked up Otha Peters give the Vols a young but talented nucleus to work with at ILB. And even though Lathers is inappropriately sized to make an impact in a 3-4, it'll be hard to keep his talent and experience off the field as an undersized ILB.
Guys like Raiques Crump, John Propst, Martaze Jackson, Christian Harris, and a healthy Greg King provide depth at linebacker. Trevaris Saulsberry, Jordan Williams, Steven Fowlkes and former walk-on Joseph Ayres could all provide the same on the line.
However, the biggest obstacle appears to be the Volunteers secondary, particularly the cornerbacks as our good friend Seth Stokes would be quick to point out. The shear aggression of the 3-4 means the cornerbacks routinely find themselves on an island, and if 2011 was any indicator, the island would be deserted with Tennessee's current cornerbacks.
If the Vols are afforded the luxury of moving Waggner to corner full-time, the Vols would essentially lock up one corner spot, but the rest of the rotation is suspect at best. Unfortunately, the Vols are only set to add three DB's if you count "athlete" Cody Blanc as a defensive back, making the loss of JUCO cornerback Otis Jacobs all the more painful.
Improved play from the likes of Justin Coleman, Marsalis Teague, Eric Gordon, Izauea Lanier (so many vowels), and Byron Moore are absolute musts if the Vols hope to use the three-man front. All these guys have talent and they've gotten reps, and a big spring would go a long way towards taking this transition from possible to probable.
At the end of the day, the Vols are still a few pieces away from being able to run the 3-4 at a high level, but you shouldn't be surprised to see it extensively in 2012 anyways.
Whatever defense the Vols run, the young talent on this roster will have to adjust to change on the fly. Sunseri is the third of what will wind up being at least five new faces on Derek Dooley's staff, and there could be more change before it's all said and done.