The Florida Gators had almost made it through a full season and recruiting cycle without any staff turnover.
News broke Friday, via 247Sports Alabama beat writer Tim Watts, that Florida defensive line coach Sal Sunseri is departing Dan Mullen’s staff to rejoin Nick Saban’s at Alabama, with his role with the Crimson Tide unclear.
For Sunseri, who had previously been on Saban’s staff at both Michigan State and Alabama, the move makes sense on multiple levels. It likely brings a bump in pay, albeit in a state with an income tax; reunites him not just with Saban but with his son, Vinnie, a former Crimson Tide player who is also joining Alabama’s staff; and, perhaps most importantly, moves him to a staff where he will be asked to do more teaching and coaching than recruiting, as Alabama’s cupboard is stuffed to the gills thanks to outgoing defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi’s successes on the trail.
At Florida, Sunseri’s relative inadequacy on the recruiting trail was beginning to show. Sunseri helped develop Jachai Polite into a force and a likely first-rounder in the 2019 NFL Draft, but the Gators’ 2019 recruiting class has just two defensive linemen (end Lloyd Summerall and tackle Jaelin Humphries) in it — and the higher-ranked of the pair, Summerall, is credited by 247Sports to area recruiter Larry Scott, Florida’s tight ends coach and a Polk County native who holds weight in Lakeland and at Lakeland High, Summerall’s school, and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Chalking up Florida’s relative lack of success in recruiting defensive linemen with Sunseri as defensive line coach is not entirely fair to Sunseri — coaches have different geographic and personal responsibilities in recruiting, and Sunseri is credited with sharing part of four-star Alabama linebacker Mohamoud Diabate’s recruitment. But Sunseri is ranked No. 281 nationally in 247Sports’ (somewhat suspect) rankings of coaches’ recruiting success in the 2019 cycle, just behind Colorado State’s defensive backs coach, and his age (Sunseri will turn 60 before the 2019 season begins) and nearly invisible Twitter presence are also marks against his ability to recruit at the level needed in 2019.
So while Sunseri is a well-regarded teacher and coach of defenders, and at least one Gator is going to miss him...
Appreciate everything Coach Sal did for me my game has grown so much from the man— Zachary L Carter (@_ZachAttacks) January 18, 2019
...it is possible that Florida will upgrade at the position after Sunseri’s departure.
It is also possible that Florida was bracing for such a departure — unless, y’know, you thought that Florida seemingly randomly bragging about its history of producing defensive lineman long before its current defensive line coach arrived on Thursday was actually random.
#DLU — Florida has had 13 defensive linemen selected in the first round since 1989, which is the most of any school over that span.#GatorMade #GatorStandard pic.twitter.com/IXKRtnuW6h— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) January 17, 2019
Initial speculation has focused on former Philadelphia Eagles defensive line coach Chris Wilson, who served in that same role and as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State under Mullen from 2010 to 2012. Wilson’s contract was not renewed by the Eagles, reports revealed just yesterday, and while returning to college football would likely mean a pay cut for Wilson, his connection to Mullen makes him the most logical candidate.
Bob Redman has Wilson among four candidates in a list published for 247Sports today, alongside N.C. State’s Kevin Patrick, Pittsburgh’s Charlie Partridge, and South Carolina’s Lance Thompson. Any of those four would be a good hire, I suspect, with all four having significant successes as both coaches and recruiters on the defensive line.
But as Redman notes, Florida also has some flexibility in regards to its staff construction. Grantham — like Sunseri — has worked with both defensive linemen and linebackers in his career, and Florida could opt to use Grantham as its defensive line coach and defensive coordinator while hiring an inside linebackers coach to pair with Christian Robinson, its rising young outside linebackers coach who is in line for a big raise after stellar work on the recruiting trail.
My guess is that Florida won’t do that, as it — probably correctly — assesses defensive line coach as a spot where it needs a good teacher and dynamic recruiter who can give more time to recruiting than a defensive coordinator for an offensive-minded head coach can give.
But we may not have to wait long to see what Florida does to replace Sunseri, as all indications suggest the Gators want to get a new hire in place sooner than later — especially with just a couple of weeks remaining before National Signing Day.