published Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Tennessee Vols lose defensive coaches to Washington Huskies

  • photo
    UT linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, left, and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox watch the field in this file photo.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley began the new year with one coaching hire to make.

Tennessee’s football coach can add two more to that list.

The Volunteers lost two of their best and brightest assistant coaches Monday, when defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon joined the staff at Washington. A source inside the UT football program confirmed the moves, which were first reported by ESPN, to the Times Free Press late Monday morning.

Washington announced the hires Monday night.

“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Wilcox said in a released statement. “Washington is a place where you can win big, and I’m excited to work with Coach [Steve] Sarkisian in developing a championship-caliber football program. Our first order of business is hitting the recruiting trail, and I can’t wait to get started.”

Despite playing a handful of freshmen and first-year players, Wilcox helped the Vols finish 28th nationally in total defense this season. The 35-year-old, who joined Dooley’s staff from Boise State in 2010, was pursued heavily a year ago by Texas before he decided to remain with the Vols. His name was mentioned with a handful of head-coaching vacancies as well.

Though he was in only his first year as a full-time staff member, Sirmon quickly developed into one of UT’s top assistants. The 34-year-old was a big hit on the recruiting trail and had an impact as the primary recruiter for some of the Vols’ key defensive commitments. Sirmon’s value showed also on the field, where he groomed freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt into immediate starters and developed senior Austin Johnson into the Vols’ leading tackler in his first year as a full-time starter.

Sarkisian fired coordinator Nick Holt and his entire defensive staff Saturday, two days after the Huskies were carved up for 67 points by Baylor and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III in the Alamo Bowl.

“I am excited to welcome Justin and Peter to Washington, as they are two of the brightest young coaches in the country,” Sarkisian said. “Both are natives of the Northwest and have strong recruiting ties in the area, which complements their tremendous coaching abilities.”

Both Wilcox and Sirmon have deep ties to the West Coast and Pac-12 Conference. An Oregon native, Wilcox played defensive back for Oregon’s Ducks and coached linebackers at California before making his name at Boise State. Sirmon was Wilcox’s teammate and roommate at Oregon before he went on to a seven-year career as a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans.

Wilcox, who was scheduled to make $700,000 next season, owes UT nothing after amending his contract last offseason following his flirtation with Texas. Sirmon was scheduled to make $175,000 next season, which would have been a $25,000 raise from this season.

Ultimately, UT will replace four assistant coaches from this season. Dooley tabbed former Vols tailback Jay Graham from South Carolina to coach running backs and replace receivers coach Charlie Baggett. Special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Eric Russell left last month for a similar position on the staff at Washington State. That leaves three openings for Dooley to fill for his third season at UT.

In all likelihood, Dooley would prefer to have his staff completed by Jan. 13, which is the first of three important on-campus recruiting weekends leading up to signing day on Feb. 1.

He’ll meet with the media at 10 this morning for the first time since UT’s surprising and disappointing season-ending loss at Kentucky. With the pressure to win more in his third season in 2012, tabbing a new defensive coordinator is a crucial hire for Dooley’s future.

“At the end of the day, the person at the top of the pyramid will be judged on A to Z, and part of that is what kind of staff has he or she built around them,” UT athletic director Dave Hart said in an interview last month. “Ultimately, that CEO is judged on that: What kind of people are around you? Do you have the right people around you? They also understand that eventually they’re going to be judged on the ratio of success. That is tied to the people around you.

“I think you have to trust the coaches to know how to hire and who to hire and what responsibilities to dole out to various assistant coaches.”

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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