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January 6, 2012

Sunseris work together in family, football roles

NEW ORLEANS | For just a moment, Sal Sunseri was thrilled.

The next, horrified.

The University of Alabama linebackers coach was in the pressbox at Mississippi State when his son, Vinnie, delivered a crushing block on a special teams play in November, but didn't immediately get up from the collision. The dynamics involved with a coach at a major college football program having a son on the team aren't always easy, and they were anything but easy on that day. Sal, who coaches outside linebackers from the pressbox along with few other UA assistants on Saturdays, described the moment as "really scary."

"The doctors came off and immediately called upstairs and told me what the heck happened," the coach said. "As the play went on, he came down, it was a punt return, and he knocks the crap out of the guy, and I'm excited because he had such a good block. The next minute I see him laying there. You go from the extreme high to the extreme low."

As UA prepares for the BCS National Championship Game against LSU Monday, the Sunseris say the father-son relationship hasn't clashed with the coach-player relationship.

In fact, Vinnie said Sal doesn't really switch between the roles.

"I think it's been molded into one person. It's kind of scary. He'll come on the field and ask how I'm doing, then the next play when I mess up, he's ready to tackle me," Vinnie said with a laugh. "He's definitely a great coach and definitely a great dad."

Added dad: "We'll have fun in our house, and if he messes up, I'm going to let him know about it. I don't care if he's on the field, or out in public, I expect the same guy, just like I'm being the same guy."

Vinnie's role as a freshman has grown from special teams work to a regular role in Alabama's dime defensive set. He'll likely play in third-and-long situations Monday, a key role on a key down, something he got some game experience with against Auburn in late November.

Dad says son is ready.

"He has the natural instinct, he can see what's going on," Sunseri said. "I think he'd have been a good linebacker. Would he have fit in our scheme? No. But he's a dang good football player. With us and the way people play us, we're playing sub coverages against three receivers, one tight end, single back. He's just what the doctor ordered."

Sunseri's other son, Tino, is a starting junior quarterback at Pittsburgh, passing for some 2,400 yards this season. And as much as Sal enjoys getting to be around Vinnie on a daily basis, he regrets getting to see much less of his other son.

"I just know (Vinnie's) development with what I see going on here at the University of Alabama is so much better than what's going on up there (at Pittsburgh)," Sunseri said. "Just being able to go into a meeting and say, 'Are you OK? What's going on? Did you have a good day at school?' It's relieving. The greatest opportunity for me in my coaching career so far is being with my son."

Although Sal's responsibilities are with the outside linebackers and Vinnie plays in the secondary, that doesn't mean the son isn't getting his share of tips and assistance.

"On special teams, he's making sure I'm dropping perfectly so that I get perfect blocks, making sure I'm running down on kickoff and making the right reads," Vinnie said. "Having a coach in your own household -- what more could you want? That's why I was able to pick up the defense so quickly. He's making me better every day."

Vinnie is expected to be among the top candidates for a starting role in the UA secondary next season with safety Mark Barron graduating. Nickelback DeQuan Menzie is out of eligibility as well, which makes for an opportunity for Alabama's younger defensive backs.
The game experience Sunseri got against Auburn, and that which he'll get Monday night, will only serve to help that effort.

"It's definitely helped, being out there that first time and getting those jitters out of the way," he said. "He came up to me on the sideline and said, 'You're in.' I kind of looked around the stadium and thought, 'Holy Moly. Here we go.' But I got out there and it was just like high school. Play fast and do what you do."

Reach Chase Goodbread at chase.goodbread@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0196.


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