Tennessee raids Alabama for a little touch of Saban on its defensive staff
Most of Tennessee's problems in 2011 were on the other side of the ball — this is a team that scored a grand total of nine offensive touchdowns in its last seven SEC games, three of them against Vanderbilt — but in a league dominated by first-rate defenses, it looks like Derek Dooley has settled on a more old-fashioned strategy for turning the thing around: If you can't score on 'em, hire 'em.
Specifically, the Vols have hired a new defensive coordinator, Sal Sunseri, who comes to Knoxville from three years in Alabama as outside linebackers coach/ace recruiter for Dooley's old boss, Nick Saban. And why not? In those three years, Alabama has led the SEC in total and scoring defense all three years, won two national championships, produced nine defensive All-Americans and held Tennessee to two touchdowns in three games. Every team in the league wants a piece of that aura.
Of course, the Saban Touch don't come cheap: The promotion will reportedly double Sunseri's salary, from $390,000 in Tuscaloosa to somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000 over the next two to three years, putting him on par with his new peers at Alabama (Kirby Smart), Georgia (Todd Grantham) and LSU (John Chavis) as three of the highest-paid assistants in the country. Smart, Grantham and Chavis all made upwards of $700,000 last year, as did South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson (now the head coach at Southern Miss), and all earned it by overseeing four of the top five defenses in the nation en route to top-20 finishes for their respective teams.
Tennessee's defense, meanwhile, yielded 49 to Arkansas, 37 to Alabama, 38 to LSU and 33 to a Florida attack that turned out to be truly dreadful. By comparison, since Sunseri joined Saban's staff in 2009, the Crimson Tide have allowed 30 points in a game just once. True, those defenses were stocked with first-rate athletes from a succession of top-rated recruiting classes. But if you can't get Courtney Upshaw and Don'ta Hightower, at least you can chip away at the brain trust that deployed them to maximum effect.
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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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