Tennessee Football: Why Sal Sunseri Will Bring Defense Back to Glory Days

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 15, 2012

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 22:  Trent Richardson #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide against Prentiss Waggner #23, Marlon Walls #58 and A.J. Johnson #45 of the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At first glance, the hiring of Tennessee's new defensive coordinator, Sal Sunseri, seemed like a less-than-stellar addition for a fanbase that desperately pleaded for a big-name coach.

Do your research, nay-sayers. Sunseri is credited and capable enough to return the Vols to the elite level that they reached during the John Chavis era.

A finalist for the 2011 Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant coach, the then-assistant head coach and linebackers coach helped Alabama to lead the NCAA in virtually every statistical category defensively. Among the Tide's four starting LBs, two are projected first-round picks in this year's draft.

Losing Justin Wilcox seemed detrimental at first, but Sunseri has SEC experience while Wilcox's claim to fame remains his former defensive coordinator position on Boise State's staff. It'd be foolish to think that this is a step down for Tennessee's defense.

Sunseri knows the ins-and-outs of the conference and has learned from the best—Nick Saban (I know it's hard to read, but it's true).

The Vols new defensive coordinator will mix things up, likely using a 3-4 defense. UT's personnel shapes up well for the switch with one of the best young front lines in the nation, including freshman All-American A.J. Johnson, freshman All-SEC Curt Maggitt (who were second and third on the team in tackles in 2011) and a herd of incoming junior-college and high-school studs. 

Oh yeah, and there's this guy named Herman Lathers. The NFL-bound red-shirt senior LB will anchor Tennessee's defense after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury.     

In a press conference announcing Sunseri's hire, head coach Derek Dooley touched on his 'ability to motivate.' This is a huge area of concern on Rocky Top this offseason as the Vols looked lifeless in their humiliating 10-7 loss to Kentucky, and many players have to be taking notice to the fans' growing disapproval of their coaches. 

Sunseri is no stranger to overcoming tough circumstances. He began his collegiate career as a walk-on at Pittsburgh in 1978, earned his way into the starting lineup and eventually became a consensus All-American on a defense that ranked atop the NCAA for two straight seasons. 

As the defensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers from 2002-2008, Sunseri had their D ranked in the top-five in total defense twice. He coached up Julius Peppers as Carolina's D-line was among the most feared in football during his tenure.

He's done nothing but win in his career, and boy could Tennessee use some of that. His Pittsburgh team went 33-3 through his three years as a starter, he was a key component of two national titles at Alabama, and Carolina had their most promising years when he was on the staff.

Sunseri and Chavis have some compelling similarities. Both started their playing career as walk-ons. Both had no experience as a defensive play-caller at a high-caliber school before they took over at UT (Sorry, Alabama A&M and Illinois State). Both have proven track records as leaders, and if you don't believe that one, ask Saban why Sunseri was his assistant head coach.

He takes over a Vols defense that finished 28th in the nation last year despite being beaten down by Alabama, LSU and Arkansas—all of which finished in the top-five in this year's final poll. 

It may take a year or two for his defensive talent to develop, but they should hold their own in 2012 and be poised for greatness in the years to follow. As long as Sunseri is the chief of Tennessee's defense, the Vols will be back to the glory days very, very soon.