Lost among the excitement of the recent hiring of Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator (I'll have more on that in a future column) is the realization that Mike Riley still has another position on his staff to be filled. Secondary coach Brian Stewart left the Huskers to take a defensive coordinator position with Rice. Whether this move was encouraged by Riley or Stewart simply wanted to run a defense again (and take upwards of a 100k cut in pay) is up for debate.
The question is: where does Riley go from here? When Bruce Read was fired following the end of the regular season, many expected Riley to fill his vacant coaching position with GA Tavita Thompson. Instead, he hired one of the best recruiters in the Pac-12 and one of the top up-and-coming young secondary coaches in the country, Donté Williams. I tend to think that had Thompson been the choice, he would have been promoted already. I expect Riley to again look outside the program to fill the spot. If and when the NCAA approves a 10th assistant coaching position, that is when the Thompson debate can truly begin.
Where does Riley add a new coach? It's probably safe to assume it will be a defensive hire and that Diaco will have at least some say in who is targeted. With the anticipated switch to a 3-4, it would be smart to add someone with a background in the new scheme. Bob Diaco has a history of coaching linebackers, so perhaps the new guy will be a secondary coach assigned to the safeties. If that's the direction Riley chooses to go, I would not be surprised to see Diaco campaign for his defensive coordinator at UConn, Anthony Poindexter, who took a job at Purdue on January 2. Diaco and Poindexter also worked together at Virginia from 2006-08, where Poindexter was the safeties coach from 2009-13. The former two-time first-team All-America, Poindexter is regarded as an outstanding recruiter with deep connections on the East Coast.
That move would make a lot of sense, but I am more in line with the philosophy that another coach with experience along the front seven should be added. The difference in techniques and assignments with the defensive line and linebackers begs for more knowledge on the staff. Like I said above, Diaco could lend his expertise to Bray and the linebackers, but he is also going to be immersed with installing his defense this spring. He will be laying the foundation for the defense and could use another expert to educate both the players and a staff with nothing but 4-3 in its background.
The ideal hire in my opinion would be current Oakland Raiders linebackers coach Sal Sunseri, who has a strong background in the 3-4. Sunseri has 32-years of coaching experience, including 8-years in the NFL. He began his coaching tenure at his alma mater, Pittsburgh, where he was the defensive line and linebackers coach from 1985-1992. After a coaching change at Pitt, Sunseri spent the next few years serving short stints at Iowa Wesleyan ('93, def. cord.), Illinois State ('94, def. cord.), Louisville (95-97, LB coach) and Alabama A&M (98-99, def. cord.) before being hired to join Nick Saban's staff at LSU in 2000 to coach the linebackers and special teams. After spending the 2001 season in the same capacity at Michigan State, Sunseri took his talents to the NFL and spent seven seasons (2002-08) as the defensive line coach for John Fox - a proponent of the 3-4 - and the Carolina Panthers. Sunseri oversaw one of the best defensive lines in the NFL during his time with the Panthers and was on the staff when the team played in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
In 2009, Sunseri left Carolina to return to the college game. He was a part of Nick Saban's staff at Alabama from 2009-11, serving as the assistant head coach for defense and linebackers coach. He helped the Crimson Tide become the 2009 and 2011 National Champions. For his efforts, in 2011 Sunseri was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, presented to the nation's top assistant coach. In recognition of his heralded recruiting abilities, he was also named 2011 National Recruiter of the Year by 247Sports.
Sunseri left Alabama in 2012 to become the defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Vols head coach Derek Dooley was fired after the 2012 season, so Sunseri joined Jimbo Fisher's staff at Florida State. Sunseri coached the defensive ends in 2013, and in 2014 he added the title of head coach of defense where he assisted defensive coordinator Charles Kelly with game-planning, while continuing to serve as DE coach. He helped guide the Seminoles to a National Championship in 2013.
Bob Diaco and Nick Saban are both rooted in the Bill Parcells coaching tree, and both prefer the 3-4 defense that is also rooted in that same tree. Saban is a part of the Bill Belichick branch, while Diaco stems from Al Groh. Someone like Sunseri would be an invaluable addition as a recruiter and would bring a wealth of knowledge of the 3-4 principles. His recent time spent with Saban could prove to be important as Diaco lays the groundwork for his system at Nebraska. A few ideas from the inner workings of Saban's system could be meshed together with Diaco's own philosophy.
It's unclear the level of interest someone like Sunseri might have in a return to the college game. Perhaps he is intent on giving the NFL another long-term try in hopes of climbing the coaching ladder in the professional ranks. I do know that with Bill Devaney's Rolodex, he should at least be on the radar and would at least be worth a phone call to gauge possible interest.
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all football website N2FL.com. He served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on recruitment and talent analysis, including the NFL Draft. You can email him at N2FL@hotmail.com.
The Case for Sal Sunseri
Sunseri would bring recruiting chops and an extended background in the 3-4.
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