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N. C. State—Tennessee Preview #23: From Coordinating Slacks to Defensive Coordinators

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In our last preview we took a blinding glance at Derek Dooley's orange sherbet slacks while comparing the head coaches for the August 31st kickoff classic. While the head coaches ultimately have the last say, the offensive and defensive coordinators not only design a team's schemes, but also call the plays for their respective units, and as signal callers the coordinators likely have as much if not more impact on the final score as the head man. This look at the N. C. State and Tennessee defensive coordinators will try to determine whether grizzled veteran assistants Mike Archer or Sal Sunseri offer an advantage to their respective schools.

Aside from quarterback Tyler Bray's frequent brushes with Johnny Law, the biggest offseason storyline for the Vols has been the plucking of Sunseri from rival Alabama and Sunseri's intention to transition the Vols to a 3-4 defense. How well that transition goes will weigh heavily in UT's ultimate success or failure this season.

With the exception of the green linebacking corps, State has a veteran unit at Archer's disposal. Though maligned over his first 3 seasons for his unit's epic badness, Archer has piloted a solid defense over the past 2 campaigns. State's improvement on defense coincided with the arrival of another veteran defensive mind, Jon Tenuta, who has added the title of associate head coach of defense to his duties as linebackers coach. Pack faithful were fretting when Tenuta accepted the Illinois DC position in the offseason, but thankfully he changed his mind and will be back to hopefully mold the inexperienced LB crew into a capable unit.

It might seem foolish to wonder whether Sunseri is ready for primetime. Alabama led the nation in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, and scoring defense en route to a national championship in 2011, and Sunseri, who coached Bama's linebackers, has 27 years of experience as an assistant coach. However, Sunseri has no experience as a coordinator at the major college level, with brief stints at Iowa Wesleyan, Illinois State, and Alabama A&M his only opportunities as the head man on defense. Kirk Herbstreit touted Sunseri as one of the top coordinator hires of the offseason, but one wonders why Sunseri never got the opportunity earlier in his career and whether things might get worse for UT's middling defense before it gets better if there are growing pains in the 3-4 transition.

Sunseri does have a lot going for him. Not only has he been around great defenses as a coach, he also led one during his All-American career at Pitt (where his son is now the starting QB). His Panthers teams led the nation in total defense twice during his career. He knows what it takes as a player and a coach, and if he can upgrade the talent at Tennessee he should help the Vols return to glory in the unforgiving SEC. Recruiting is apparently something Sunseri does well, as 247Sports named him college football's recruiter of the year in 2011. Tennessee defensive lineman Marlon Walls quipped that the Vols "think he may be in the mafia." Perhaps when Sunseri hits prospects' living rooms he makes recruits an offer they can't refuse.

If your program had the opportunity to hire the guy that led LSU's defense to consecutive top 12 finishes in scoring defense, including one season of surrendering a stingy 11.2 points per game, that would be an offer you couldn't refuse. That's just what Archer did. The only problem is that he did it 26 years ago. Archer even landed the head gig for the Tigers, going 10-1-1 one season with a Gator Bowl victory and a top 5 ranking. But Archer's career has plateaued since the early glory years at LSU. In 12 years as a defensive coordinator at Kentucky and N. C. State since his ouster at LSU, Archer has had just one top-20 unit, the 1993 Wildcats' defense that surrendered 17.4 points per game. Granted the talent level at UK and N. C. State is typically going to be considerably less impressive than LSU's collection of studs, but as a State fan you want a guy at the helm that can do more with less, and Archer's recent track record does not inspire a lot of confidence in that regard.

But State has a de facto co-coordinator in Tenuta, a guy that has a history of immediately improving defenses upon his arrival on campus. Tenuta's first coordinator job was challenging, as he inherited an SMU Swiss cheese unit that had been burned for 38.7 points per game in 1990. Tenuta's first squad shaved a touchdown off of that total, and by his second year the Mustangs yielded a respectable 25.1 points per game. In a lone season as Ohio State's DC, Tenuta's defense yielded just 18.5 points per game, good for 14th best in the country and nearly a touchdown less than it had allowed the year before his arrival. The Buckeyes went from 6-6 to 8-4. In a year on the sidelines for the Tarheels, the Tenuta-guided D again improved. After going 6-5 and allowing 25.8 points per game in 2000, the Heels improved to 8-5, giving up just 20.8 points per game in the process. In 6 years at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets never finished worse than 27th in the country in scoring defense under Tenuta. They were a little worse than that before he arrived, and they immediately dropped off a bit after his departure.

Tenuta's greatest impact has been in Raleigh. The Pack went from an unconscionable 99th in the country in scoring defense to 29th in Tenuta's first year with the program, shaving 10 points per game from their opponents' ledgers. In addition to an impressive stint at LSU, Archer coached linebackers for Bill Cowher's Pittsburgh Steelers. Tenuta's impressive résumé also includes time with the legendary Notre Dame program. That State has both of these guys on the sidelines is really quite remarkable, and it is a testament to how much respect Tom O'Brien has in the game to have both guys on his staff.

Sunseri, like the pick of Dooley as head coach, is a bit of a gamble since, like Dooley, Sunseri had previously never held this high of a position at a major school. But, given Sunseri's pedigree, it is a gamble that will likely pay off. Given Archer's pre-Tenuta struggles, I would probably trade Archer for Sunseri straight up, but the tandem of Archer and Tenuta, coaches with nearly 70 years of combined experience, coupled with the potential for growing pains as UT switches defenses, gives the Pack the advantage in this battle of the assistant coaches.