-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)
To steal a rather simple phrase from my boss, @AthlonMitch, losing coordinators in the off-season is a double-edged sword.
It is a sign of respect when other institutions from around the nation pilfer from a coaching staff. It means that the head coach has made quality hiring decisions. However, it also means said head man has to search for new blood and convince recruits that the new coaching staff has been stabilized and is still the right fit for them.
So for Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, who has the added pressure of replacing five coaches three weeks from National Signing Day after a tumultuous 5-7 campaign, selecting the right names for the job could not be more critical.
To recap, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was hired literally and figuratively out of the blue from Boise State, has returned to the Pacific Northwest by taking the same job at Washington under Steve Sarkisian. Linebackers coach and stud recruiter Peter Sirmon also returns to his neck of the woods — he is from Walla Walla, Wash. — by following Wilcox to Seattle. Offensive line coach Harry Heistand took a similar position at Notre Dame, and special teams coordinator and tight end coach Eric Russell reunited with new Cougars head coach Mike Leach at Washington State. Finally, wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett was not retained.
Big Orange nation has been on edge ever since the Kentucky loss, and losing coaches has only made the temperature under Dooley’s rear end escalate. Vols everywhere have been burning up message boards and talk show phones with justified uneasiness.
But Dooley has shut them up – at least, until kickoff on September 1 against NC State in the Georgia Dome.
First, he brought in running backs coach and rising recruiting star Jay Graham from South Carolina. Graham, who played running back at Tennessee, returns to his alma mater after playing an instrumental role in developing and recruiting the best running back in the nation, Marcus Lattimore. Dooley gets a solid A- for this one.
Late Thursday evening, Dooley announced the hiring of offensive line coach Sam Pittman. A college coach of some sort for the better part of 20 years, Pittman comes to Knoxville after five years as the OL coach, and eventual associate head coach, at North Carolina under Butch Davis. He brings considerable experience and was named an ESPN Top 25 recruiter in 2011. Give this one a B+.
But the most important maneuver came on Friday the 13th, no less, when he announced the Vols new defensive coordinator would be former Alabama assistant head coach and linebackers coach Sal Sunseri.
Sunseri, who won two national championships under Nick Saban, got a raise after the title game to roughly $390,000 per year. He will reportedly make somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000 per year over the three-year deal with Tennessee.
The new Tennessee defensive coordinator played linebacker at Pittsburgh (1978-1981) and has been in the coaching business ever since – mostly in the college ranks, but also with a seven-year NFL run at Carolina. He has been incredibly influential in developing talents like Courtney Upshaw, Rolando McClain, Nico Johnson and Dont’a Hightower for Bama of late. Vols’ fans can expect more of the same with youngsters like freshman linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt as well as developing sophomore line talents Jacques Smith, Daniel Hood and Corey Miller. What system he runs remains to be seen, and shifting to a 3-4 could certainly impact the roles names like Smith would play on the defense.
His coaching talent has been obvious at Alabama — Nick Saban doesn’t hire scrubs to coach his defense — but his ability to pound the recruiting trail will be felt immediately in Knoxville. Graham and Pittman are considered strong recruiters, but they pale in comparison to Sunseri’s considerable skill in luring talent to campus.
When Tennessee was competing for SEC and national titles in the late '90s and early 2000s, the roster was loaded with elite prospects from the Eastern seaboard — from the Mid-Atlantic region down through the Carolinas and into Georgia. This will now be an area of focus once again as Sunseri has a brand name that rings true up and down the coastline.
Certainly, it is easier to recruit to Alabama right now than Tennessee, but fans should expect some fireworks (aka Eddie Goldman) leading up to National Signing Day 2012. Sunseri is credited with landing Athlon Consensus 100 names like Phillip Sims (Chesapeake, Va.), Alfy Hill (Shallotte, N.C.), both Arie and Cyrus Kouandjio (Hyattsville, Md.), Trey DePriest (Springfield, Ohio), Jeoffrey Pagan (Asheville, N.C.) and Cyrus Jones (Baltimore, Md.).
Sunseri is given credit for inking six AC100 (or top 100) recruits for Alabama in the last two classes. The Tide has signed 13 total top 100 talents over that span and is leading the nation with eight AC100 verbals in 2012. By comparison, the Tennessee Vols have signed seven total AC100 recruits as a program over that span, including the recently departed DeAnthony Arnett, and have one Top-100 commitment in the '12 class.
Dooley needed the complete package at defensive coordinator. He needed to win the press conference. He needed a coach who can develop talent and motivate young athletes to play above their skill level. And he needed a coach who can burn up the recruiting trail in key states like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
He accomplished all of the above with the A+ hiring of Sunseri.
"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," said Sunseri. "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."
Does putting the right names in the right places automatically mean Dooley will win eight games in 2012 and keep his job at Tennessee? The answer is a resounding no. His evaluation as an SEC head coach is still largely incomplete. Only the 2012 season, on the field, will answer that question.
But make no mistake, he has added some serious experience and recruiting clout to his staff. And the announcements could not have come at a better time as the results of adding Sunseri, Pittman and Graham should be blatantly apparent over the next few weeks. The Vols have already received a massive verbal commitment — literally at 6-foot-5 and 360 pounds — from junior college defensive tackle Daniel McCullers just hours after the announcement.
So it starts today for Sunseri, who will lead the way when the Vols host their biggest official visit weekend of the year over the next two days.
Tennessee fans have been pouring gasoline all over themselves since the inexplicable loss to Kentucky to end the season. But Dooley has officially, if temporarily, put out the fire by landing excellent assistant coaches.
He certainly could use some positive energy and momentum heading into his crucial third season.