Sal Sunseri certainly wasn't the biggest name floating around the rumor mill for the Tennessee Volunteers' vacant defensive coordinator position. But after speaking to several candidates, UT coach Derek Dooley hand-picked the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide's outside linebackers and associate head coach to replace Justin Wilcox in Knoxville.
GVX247's Wes Rucker -- who broke the news this morning -- suggested Sunseri was Dooley's top choice all along ... through the Randy Shannon rumors, the flirtation with Kevin Steele, discussions with Phil Bennett and interview with Buddy Green.
If so, Dooley got his man -- for better or worse.
Sunseri interviewed in Knoxville on Wednesday and left with an offer to come to Knoxville. Though there has been no confirmation, reports suggest the package UT offered Sunseri was for three years between $700-800K. He went back to Tuscaloosa to mull it over with family and to discuss the situation with Tide coach Nick Saban, who reportedly made a run at keeping him. Sunseri's decision wasn't just about money, however. His son Vinnie was a freshman defensive back for UA this year and is in line for major playing time with Alabama over the next three years.
In the end, though, Sunseri decided to take the money and run, leaving UA for a better title and another step closer to realizing his dream of being a college football head coach.
Though he doesn't have a ton of experience as a defensive coordinator [two seasons at Alabama A&M in 1998-99], Sunseri is known for his development of players. If the Vols don't win next year, there is also the very realistic possibility that the coaching staff could be in jeopardy, so A) It gives Dooley somebody with which he's comfortable to ride-or-die and B) It gives the Vols a coach who has a track record of recruiting star players to help re-stock the cupboard.
Sunseri was hired by Saban to be associate head coach and outside linebackers coach in 2009 after coaching the Carolina Panthers defensive line. He was an All-American linebacker at Pittsburgh. He is known for the development of players, and Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis credits his development as a pass rusher to Sunseri, who was Mathis' defensive coordinator at Alabama A&M. Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers also rave about him, and Sunseri developed Alabama's Courtney Upshaw into a star this season. He was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given to the nation's top assistant coach. Here is his Alabama bio.
In addition to his development of players and the fact that he comes from perhaps the best defense to ever play college football in this year's national champion Tide, Sunseri is known as a tremendous recruiter. He has ranked in Rivals top 25 recruiters in each of the past two years.
He was UA's lead recruiter on five-star defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, and UA leads for him currently. In 2011, he secured commitments from four-star linebacker Trey DePriest, who played a lot for UA as a freshman, four-star defensive end Quinton Dial, four-star defensive back Chris Jones, three-star offensive lineman Ryan Kelly, five-star offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, four-star defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan and his son, Vinnie Sunseri. He was named 247 Sports national recruiter of the year last season.
For the 2010 class, Sunseri recruited and secured commitments from four-star defensive end Alfy Hill, four-star offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio, three-star defensive end Wilson Love and four-star quarterback Phillip Sims.
Saban made a strong push to keep Sunseri, but the Vols came through with the money and the title. According to Bama Online, UT's defensive line coach Lance Thompson -- who makes $400K at UT -- is a candidate to replace him. Hopefully, this will help the Vols hang onto wavering commitment Dalton Santos as well as secure commitments from big defensive tackles Daniel McCullers and Koren Kirven. Regardless, Sunseri appears to be a well-respected, quality hire according to people in the business, and it's always good to take from your rivals ...
Personally, I love the hire, and I really think the Vols have upgraded their coaching staff and recruiting prowess in the past couple of days. Though he isn't as experienced as some of the rumored candidates, Sunseri is well-respected and has a track record of developmental success.
He replaces Justin Wilcox, who left along with linebackers coach Peter Sirmon last Monday to head back to the Pacific Northwest and join Steve Sarkisian's staff at Washington. Dooley replaced offensive line coach Harry Hiestand with former North Carolina coach Sam Pittman yesterday, and Jay Graham came to UT from South Carolina after the season. The Vols are still on the market for a special teams/tight ends coach and another defensive assistant. I would speculate Sunseri will be instrumental in the hire of the defensive assistant.