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James Willis leaves Auburn for Alabama

In a stunning move two weeks before national signing day, James Willis is switching sides.

The only Auburn assistant coach retained by Gene Chizik from Tommy Tuberville’s staff was hired by archrival Alabama as an associate head coach and linebackers coach under Nick Saban on Wednesday.

“(Saban) is one of the best defensive coaches in the game, and this is a chance to gain some great experience and learn from the best,” Willis said in a news release from Alabama. “You don’t get many chances like that in the coaching business.

“When you combine that opportunity with the history and tradition at Alabama, it was a decision that was best for me personally as well as professionally.”

Willis, an Auburn alum, coached linebackers for the Tigers last season. Though his positional role never was defined after Chizik retained him Dec. 26, Willis was instrumental in holding together the team’s recruiting class in the wake of Tuberville’s resignation.

Noted for his work in the Mobile, Ala., area, Willis was the primary recruiter for seven of Auburn’s 19 commitments for 2009, according to AuburnSports.com. One, junior college defensive lineman Nick Fairley, already has signed a letter of intent.

The move leaves Auburn with two holes on its coaching staff — secondary and linebackers.

Chizik could not be reached for comment.

Willis is one of two coaches the Crimson Tide hired Wednesday. Sal Sunseri, a former Carolina Panthers defensive line coach, also will coach linebackers.

The moves come on the heels of two departures from the Alabama coaching staff.

Head defensive coach Kevin Steele left to become Clemson’s defensive coordinator Jan. 10. Linebackers coach Lance Thompson left for an assistant job with Tennessee last week. Thompson, like Willis, recruited the Mobile area.

“I’m extremely pleased and happy to have James join our staff,” Saban said in the news release. “We tried to go out and hire the best possible coaches when this process started, and I’m confident we’ve done that.

“James has everything you would want in terms of finding an outstanding coach and an outstanding recruiter with a lot of enthusiasm and intensity.”

Willis was a three-year starter at linebacker for Auburn from 1990-92, earning All-SEC recognition in 1992.

He played seven years in the NFL for three teams and a season for the Birmingham Thunderbolts in the XFL before getting into coaching. He began at Auburn as a student assistant in 2001 and advanced to graduate assistant by 2003.

Willis also had coaching stints at Rhode Island (2004-05) and Temple (2005) before re-joining Auburn in 2006 as a linebackers coach.