It has been a rapid rise for Jeremy Pruitt from high school assistant coach to anointed savior of a major college football program.
Eight years ago, he was a defensive coordinator at Hoover (Ala.) High School. Five years ago, he was a non-coaching quality control assistant at Alabama. As late as last year, few fans of college football knew who he was.
But when Pruitt walked into a team meeting at Georgia in January, minutes after being hired as defensive coordinator, he received a standing ovation. It wasn’t so much for his credentials, though by then many players were aware of them. It was more because he represented a new start, something Georgia’s defense desperately needed.
“A lot of guys probably needed a fresh start,” senior cornerback Damian Swann says.
Before getting into why Pruitt is seen as the right guy at Georgia, it’s important to know the state of the defense — both playing-wise and emotionally — after last season.
Todd Grantham had his good moments in four years as defensive coordinator, especially the first two. He brought a much-needed fire to the defense, which was one of the best in the nation in 2011. But the unit struggled the following season, which was a surprise given all its talent, and last year it struggled even more, crippled by youth and inexperience.
After the regular season, head coach Mark Richt said Grantham would be retained, citing the need for coaching stability, and Grantham said he thought “the arrow was up” on his defense, due to returning all but one starter. But when Louisville came calling in January with a lucrative offer to Grantham, Richt and Georgia didn’t match it.
There was a sense around Georgia — fans and media, and some within the program — that Grantham’s act had worn thin. His self-assured attitude and fiery demeanor were great when the defense was doing well, especially in 2011. But when the unit struggled, Grantham rarely took personal blame. And given his NFL background, Grantham was also reluctant to simplify his scheme or go deep into his bench.
When Grantham bolted, Richt’s phone started lighting up, with plenty of coaches eager to get involved in the search. But the most important phone call was taking place between Pruitt and Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, who were roommates at Alabama and remained close friends.
Pruitt has only been a college defensive coordinator one year. But it was a very good year: Florida State ranked first nationally in scoring defense, third in yards allowed, and, oh by the way, won the national championship. He also helped win two national titles as Alabama’s secondary coach.
Friend lobbied Pruitt to join him in Athens. Richt secured the promise of a big raise. And within 48 hours, Pruitt was in.
“If you follow this business, there’s highs and lows everywhere,” Pruitt says. “For the seven years prior to this year the SEC has won national championships and FSU’s on top right now, so there’s never an easy time to leave a place, especially a place where you have such good friends and the place that gave you an opportunity. But the opportunity to come to the University of Georgia and the opportunity to work with Coach Richt — well, there’s a lot of folks who would like to be sitting in this chair today.”
But Georgia players, without ripping into their former coach, made it clear during the spring that there was more benefit to them.
“It’s a fresh start. But it feels like it’s a different vibe around here,” junior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins says. “Guys want to be holding everyone else accountable for something. We’re not letting guys get away with the small stuff, and the coaches certainly aren’t either. They’re getting on us. I feel like we’re doing a lot of the small things now. We’re doing the technique work. … The coaches really just want to see us succeed. They’re always available for us. They’re just going the extra mile, compared to last year.”
Georgia was eighth in the SEC in total defense last year, yielding 375.5 yards per game, the most of the Richt era.
The pass defense was mostly at fault: It yielded 227.4 yards per game, ninth in the SEC. (Georgia’s run defense was a respectable sixth in the league, and actually improved over 2012.)
Georgia also didn’t force turnovers, getting just 15 in 13 games, the second-worst rate in the conference.
Grantham-to-Pruitt doesn’t actually mean a sea change in defensive philosophy: Both run the 3-4 as a base defense, and both come from the Nick Saban coaching tree.
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But Pruitt began making smaller changes in the spring:
• He asked players to drop weight, in order to form a lighter and quicker defense, one with speed more suited to defend no-huddle offenses. (Such as Clemson, the season-opening opponent.) Grantham preferred big, physical nose guards and even bigger defensive backs.
• Pruitt vowed to sub more, and use different packages. Grantham rarely employed a dime package last year.
• And perhaps most important, Pruitt simplified the defensive playbook. Last season, Georgia’s young players were clearly confused on the field.
“It’s a lot more easy,” senior inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said this spring.
Pruitt came up through the ranks as a high school coach, so it’s not surprising he would go that way. Teaching technique and fundamentals is central to his philosophy.
“There are a lot of details to it that I think get overlooked, and I think with my background in high school you’re sitting there teaching junior high kids about the fundamentals of how to play the game and how to get in a stance,” Pruitt says. “That’s how I’ll coach, and that’s my approach, so I think when you put emphasis on turnovers, hopefully you get the results.”
Pruitt owns three national championship rings, but he doesn’t wear them. He says he has them in a safe deposit box and doesn’t touch them.
But Pruitt didn’t have to wear the rings for his new players to be aware of them.
“He’s a smart guy. He’s got rings for a reason,” sophomore cornerback J.J. Green says.
“So his defense is gonna work.”
On Signing Day, a fan tried to bait Richt into saying something about Grantham, asking if Richt would thank Bobby Petrino for hiring Grantham away. The Georgia coach declined to answer the question, but as he walked away decided to say something.
“I’ll say this,” Richt said, looking at no one in particular, “I’m as excited and as energized as I’ve been in a long time. This whole thing has turned out to be quite a good thing for Georgia.”
Written by Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.