Alabama looks to return to its winning ways on Saturday
Sal Sunseri, a former All-American linebacker at Pittsburgh, joined the Alabama coaching staff in January of 2009 after serving as the defensive line coach with the NFL's Carolina Panthers. As a member of the Crimson Tide staff, he holds the title of assistant head coach for defense and coaches the outside linebackers.
The 2011 outside linebackers under Sunseri have played a big role in the overall success of the defense, thanks in large part to Courtney Upshaw, who has recorded 8.5 sacks on the season and 17.0 tackles for loss. Those numbers rank the Lombardi and Butkus Award finalist fourth in the Southeastern Conference and second in the league, respectively in terms of sacks and TFL. Sunseri was also recognized individually for his contributions to the coaching staff, being named a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation's top assistant coach.
In 2010, Sunseri continued to build on his solid foundation from the National Championship season. The defensive unit ranked third in the country in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. Sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower played a number of roles in 2010 and garnered second-team All-SEC honors with 69 tackles (second on the team) and nine quarterback hurries. Upshaw led the Tide from his jack linebacker spot with 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He was named the MVP of the Capital One Bowl after recording five tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks in the 49-7 win over No. 7 Michigan State.
In Sunseri's first season at Alabama, he helped guide the Tide to the National Championship behind a dominant defense that ranked second nationally in four major categories - rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. Sunseri's NFL experience with the pass rush helped Alabama greatly increase production in that area. UA totaled 32 sacks in 2009 and 98 tackles for loss, despite losing one of its best pass rushers in Hightower early in the season to injury. Alabama was also well-represented on the AP All-America team with three defenders earning first-team honors, including Butkus winner Rolando McClain.
Sunseri's defensive line with the Panthers was regarded as one of the best in the NFL. Defensive end Julius Peppers, defensive end Mike Rucker and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins earned Pro Bowl honors during Sunseri's tenure. He produced at least one Pro Bowl defensive lineman in five of six seasons as defensive line coach. The Panthers were among the top 10 in the NFL in terms of fewest yards allowed in four of his seven seasons and made three playoff appearances.
Sunseri came to Carolina as a defensive assistant in 2002 and took over as defensive line coach in 2003. It was a seamless transition as the Panthers defensive line remained one of the best in the NFL in 2003 under Sunseri. Carolina ranked eighth in overall defense, 11th against the run and seventh in sacks per pass play. The defensive line accounted for 32.5 of the team's 40 total sacks and also produced a pair of Pro Bowl players in Jenkins and Rucker.
The Panthers' defensive line has provided more than its share of superlatives. In 2006, the Panthers ranked seventh in yards allowed and seventh in sacks per play as two members of the starting unit, Peppers and Jenkins, were selected to the NFC Pro Bowl squad. In 2005, Carolina finished third in yards allowed, fourth against the rush and fifth in sacks per pass play. In 2008, Carolina ranked ninth in the NFL and fifth in the NFC in sacks (37.0) while also ranking 12th in the NFL and sixth in the NFC in scoring defense (20.6 ppg). Peppers earned his fourth trip to the Pro Bowl and established a new career-high with 14.5 sacks.
Prior to his time at Carolina, Sunseri worked as the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at Michigan State in 2001 after spending 2000 at Louisiana State under head coach Nick Saban in the same capacity. He coached at Alabama A&M in 1998 and 1999 as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach following three seasons from 1995-97 at the University of Louisville as linebackers coach.
Working his way up the coaching ladder, Sunseri spent one year each at Illinois State as defensive coordinator in 1994 and Iowa Wesleyan as assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and special teams coach in 1993. He broke into coaching at his alma mater, Pittsburgh, in 1985 and coached the defensive line and linebackers before being named assistant head coach in 1992.
Sunseri began his career at the University of Pittsburgh in 1978 as a walk-on and ended it as a team captain and consensus All-American as a senior in 1981. A three-year starter at linebacker, he helped the Panthers to a combined record of 33-3 and anchored a defensive unit that led the NCAA in total defense in 1980 and 1981. He was the defensive MVP in the 1982 Senior Bowl and was drafted in the 10th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers but had his pro career cut short by a knee injury in training camp. He received a bachelor's degree in communications from Pittsburgh in 1982.
Sunseri is married to the former Roxann Evans, who was a varsity gymnast at Pittsburgh. The couple has two daughters, Jaclyn and Ashlyn, and two sons, Santino (a quarterback at Pittsburgh) and Vinnie (a defensive back at Alabama).