Sources: Todd Grantham, top candidate for Alabama's DC, joins Saints

Veteran coach Todd Grantham, who was one of the top candidates for Alabama's defensive coordinator job and interviewed with Nick Saban, has instead decided to return to the NFL as a defensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints, sources told ESPN on Friday.

Grantham, who previously coached in the NFL for 11 seasons, spent the 2022 season as an off-field analyst at Alabama. Saban has had success bringing in established coaches who've either been fired or are out of work, making them an analyst for a year or two and then elevating them to a coordinator's role.

Grantham has been a coordinator at three different schools in the SEC and worked under Saban at Michigan State. Grantham was fired by Dan Mullen toward the end of the 2021 season at Florida, preceding Mullen's firing as head coach when the Gators finished 6-7, and Saban then brought in Grantham as an analyst.

Saban, entering his 17th season at Alabama, is looking for a replacement for Pete Golding, who left last month to take the defensive coordinator's job at Ole Miss.

Grantham joins a Saints' defensive staff that has seen both co-defensive coordinators leave since the end of the season. Ryan Nielsen took a job with the Atlanta Falcons, and Kris Richard was fired. Grantham is expected to work with the Saints' defensive line, as head coach Dennis Allen calls the plays on defense.

During Grantham's time at Florida, the Gators were among the SEC's best at producing negative plays on defense. They had 158 sacks from 2018-21, ranking first in the SEC and third nationally during that span. They forced 78 turnovers during that same period, which ranked fourth in the SEC and 19th nationally. Florida gave up 20 points per game in 2018 and 15.5 in 2019, but those numbers declined during Grantham's last two seasons -- 30.8 points in 2020 and 26.8 points in 2021 -- and he was fired the day after the Gators' 40-17 loss to South Carolina with three games remaining in the 2021 regular season.

In his only season at Mississippi State, Grantham was a Broyles Award semifinalist as the top assistant coach in the country and led Mississippi State to its best finish in total defense (302 yards per game), yards per play (5.2) and third-down defense (31 percent) since 1999.

Grantham, who also served as Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2010-13, was the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator from 2005-07. Saban tried to hire Grantham before the 2019 season at Alabama, but Grantham had only been at Florida for one season and elected to stay put. Grantham also turned down a job to become the Cincinnati Bengals ' defensive coordinator that same year. Saban showed interest in hiring Grantham on two other occasions as his defensive coordinator -- when Saban went to the Miami Dolphins from LSU in 2005 and when Saban went to LSU from Michigan State in 2000.

Saban did fill his Alabama's opening on the other side of the ball on Friday as Notre Dame's Tommy Rees accepted the job to become the Tide's offensive coordinator, sources told ESPN's Pete Thamel.

Saban conducted an extensive interview with Rees via Zoom on Wednesday, and Rees flew to Tuscaloosa on Thursday to visit campus. Rees, 30, is one of youngest coordinators in college football. He was the Irish offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach the past three seasons and nearly went with Brian Kelly to LSU prior to the 2022 season.

Saban's defensive coordinator hires have almost always been coaches he has worked with in the past and coaches who have run his defensive system. As Saban conducted this search, sources told ESPN that he spoke with former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt about the job, but that the uncertainty surrounding Pruitt and his involvement in Tennessee's pending NCAA case, and any scrutiny that would have come from the SEC office, worked against Pruitt and his chances of landing an on-field or coordinator's position at any school in the league.

Tennessee, charged with 18 NCAA Level 1 violations on Pruitt's watch, fired Pruitt for cause following the 2020 season. Whatever penalties Pruitt might incur from the NCAA would follow him to any school that tried to hire him, but there is no SEC bylaw expressly preventing a school from hiring him. Coaching hires are institutional decisions.

Pruitt was Alabama's defensive coordinator from 2016-2017. The Crimson Tide won a national championship in 2017 and ranked first nationally in scoring defense (11.9 points per game). Pruitt also worked under Saban at Alabama from 2007-12 before going to Florida State as defensive coordinator and then Georgia as defensive coordinator. Pruitt has not worked in college football since his ouster at Tennessee.

Alabama finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense all four of Golding's seasons as defensive coordinator. Golding's best season was this past year when the Tide finished tied for ninth nationally in scoring defense (18.2 points per game), 13th in total defense (318.2 points per game) and fourth in yards per play (4.59). But in Alabama's two losses, the Tide gave up 52 points to Tennessee and 32 to LSU in overtime.

The Crimson Tide finished 11-2 this past season and missed the College Football Playoff for only the second time since its inception in the 2014 season.