published Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Alabama coaching assistant chosen as new UT Vols defensive coordinator

The University of Tennessee football program has hired Alabama assistant coach Sal Sunseri to be its next defensive coordinator.
The University of Tennessee football program has hired Alabama assistant coach Sal Sunseri to be its next defensive coordinator.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee has its new defensive coordinator.

That doesn't mean the Volunteers will run an entirely new defense next season, though.

Needing to connect on a crucial hire for his third season as UT's head coach, Derek Dooley tabbed Alabama outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri to replace Justin Wilcox, who left the Vols to become Washington's defensive coordinator last week.

The Crimson Tide won two national titles in the 52-year-old Sunseri's three seasons partly on the strength of head coach Nick Saban's attacking 3-4 defense, but Dooley said the Vols won't move entirely toward that look.

"One of the reasons I went after Sal was because I felt like we needed to be a little more multiple and I felt like we needed to be a little more aggressive," Dooley said during a Friday afternoon news conference. "Sal brings that. I think our personnel allows us to do a lot more because of the body types we have and guys that we have recruited.

"Every time you have a coaching change, it's a great opportunity to try and improve in some areas you think you need to improve in. I hope we did that."

The UT defense returns nine starters from a unit that finished 28th nationally under Wilcox despite starting five first-year players. Though he's been in coaching since 1985, Sunseri has been a defensive coordinator only four years in stops at Illinois State (1994) and Alabama A&M (1998-99).

However, one year together on Saban's staff at LSU in 2000 and six seasons under head coach and defensive guru John Fox with the NFL's Carolina Panthers were enough to convince Dooley.

The body of work was good enough for Dooley to make what he called a "simple" decision, though raiding the staff of a rival school and his former mentor was admittedly difficult.

"I know Sal, ever since we were together in 2000, the next step he wanted was to be a D-coordinator at a high level," Dooley said. "To his credit, he didn't want to just rush into it. Some coaches want to get the title. Other coaches like to learn and develop and grow."

Dooley still has two staff vacancies, though Sunseri's expertise and prior experience coaching linebackers and defensive linemen gives the Vols some flexibility in hiring a fourth defensive assistant. One of the two remaining hires likely will be a special-teams coordinator. Dooley declined to delve into how he'd move forward with slotting his staff.

The immediate move forward for Sunseri is helping UT wrap up its 2012 signing class. Some of the Vols' key committed defensive prospects were officially visiting campus this weekend, and Sunseri, who was 247Sports' 2011 national recruiter of the year, will hit the road to visit other committed prospects and uncommitted targets. His recruiting reputation certainly helped his appeal.

"The chance to work with Derek Dooley, who has been around championships and knows what it takes to build an elite program, combined with the rich tradition of the University of Tennessee makes this opportunity so exciting to me," Sunseri said in a UT release. "I am fired up to work with all of the young talent on the defensive side of the ball, and I can't wait to get up to Knoxville and coach them."

The formations and schemes remain to be seen, however. The Vols were multiple with their fronts, alignments and blitzes under Wilcox, but Sunseri's background with the 3-4 defenses of Saban and Fox open that up as a possibility. In such a front, a defense needs an oversized nose tackle paired with larger defensive ends and linebackers.

If UT's defensive future is indeed more 3-4, the Vols got a key building block Friday with Daniel McCullers' verbal commitment. The 6-foot-8, 380-pound defensive tackle out of Georgia Military College easily fits the mold of a 3-4 nose tackle. GMC coach Bert Williams certainly believes it.

"Absolutely, that's why Alabama wanted him," Williams said by phone Friday afternoon. "He can clog the middle, push the pocket and can be a pretty good pass rusher with his long arms. He's a big ol' rascal."

Rising junior defensive tackle Maurice Couch and midterm enrollee and former Alabama defensive tackle Darrington Sentimore could provide bulk along the defensive front. UT's recent linebacker recruiting has focused on bigger linebackers such as 245-pound A.J. Johnson, who earned Freshman All-American honors this season. Until spring practice begins in March, all the talk of a switch to a 3-4 defense is merely just that.

"We're going to do it all," Dooley stressed. "We're going to be a multiple team, which means there will be 3-4 principles, there will be 4-3 principles, there will be some odd looks. There will be everything.

"But what we're going to look like next fall is going to predicated as we put staff in the spring and training camp. What can we do well given our personnel? Until our guys get out there and start doing this stuff, you don't know what they can do well and what they can't."

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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