Jeremy Pruitt first met Georgia coach Mark Richt in the summer of 2003, when, during a visit to Athens, Pruitt -- then a coach at Fort Payne (Ala.) High -- sat down with the leader of the Bulldogs program. Georgia was recruiting some of Pruitt’s players, and he had tagged along with them to witness the Richt Effect for himself.
“There were a couple of kids Georgia was recruiting, so I brought them over here,” Pruitt said. “[Richt] wasn’t talking to me, he was talking to the kids, but just how he handled the whole situation -- it was the first time I’d ever met him, and I was really impressed.”
Pruitt left that meeting convinced that he would work for Richt if he ever got the chance. In January, more than a decade after the two men first met, Richt hired Pruitt to be the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator. Pruitt was one of the hottest assistants in college football at season’s end, and for good reason: He had helped unbeaten Florida State capture its first BCS title since 1999.
Now, Pruitt is hoping to replicate that success in Athens, where he takes over a defense that has underachieved in recent seasons. Under former coordinator Todd Grantham -- who joined Bobby Petrino’s Louisville staff in January -- Georgia allowed an average of 5.4 yards per play in 2013, eighth in the SEC. In four regular-season losses last season, the Bulldogs gave up an average of more than 38 points per game.
For Pruitt, going to Georgia means that he is stepping down from the pinnacle of the sport, as the Seminoles are the reigning national champs. Many wondered why he would leave Tallahassee for a seemingly tougher assignment. But Pruitt calls the opportunity to coach alongside Richt in the SEC “huge.” It’s also a chance to move closer to home; Pruitt likes the proximity of Athens to his hometown of Rainesville, Ala.
“From Tallahassee to Rainesville is about six hours and 15 minutes,” said Pruitt, who was also college roommates with Bulldogs offensive line coach Will Friend when the two played at Alabama. “From Athens to where I’m from is about three hours and 30 minutes. I have a son who’s a junior in high school up there, and he plays football and baseball. This probably gives me a little more opportunity to see him play.”
Whatever enticed Pruitt to leave Tallahassee, the Bulldogs didn’t hide their excitement when he agreed to join Georgia’s staff. When the school announced Pruitt’s hire on Jan. 15, it issued a release with a simple two-word statement from Richt: “I’m ecstatic.”
Pruitt is just one piece of Richt’s defensive makeover. The Dawgs have also added assistants Mike Ekeler (inside linebackers), Kevin Sherrer (Sam linebackers) and Tracy Rocker (defensive line and linebackers). But the direction of the defense begins and ends with Pruitt, and Richt said that his coordinator’s résumé comes with an expectation of rapid improvement, especially among his players.
“I think they're excited about just seeing what's in store because obviously coach Pruitt has had a lot of success where he's been,” Richt told reporters recently. “The coaches that we've brought in besides him on defense have all had a lot of success where they've been. There's an expectation of things getting better, so I think that's probably where the excitement comes in."
Prior to joining Florida State, Pruitt served as an assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama from 2007 to ’12. He was the defensive backs coach from ’10 to ’12, when the Crimson Tide took home two national titles. Last fall, Pruitt’s Seminoles’ ranked first nationally in scoring defense (12.1 points per game) and second nationally in yards per play allowed (4.09), behind only Michigan State (4.04).
The ’Noles took quickly to Pruitt’s coaching style when he arrived in Tallahassee. His philosophy was simple: Work hard and results will follow. As his former players tell it, that mindset helped Florida State reach Pasadena at season’s end.
“He said something to me that I'll never forget in my life,” Seminoles cornerback Lamarcus Joyner told reporters before the BCS title game. “He said, ‘You don't get what you want, you get what you earn.’ I never heard that said before. He got my attention from day one, and to just see the way he loves football, the way he loves coaching and developing young men, it's no better feeling. You know, you have no choice but to draw to him. He's a natural leader, and we respect that.”
Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith echoed Joyner’s praise of Pruitt in his pregame press conference. “We came in, we believed in what he did and we just believed in the process, and look where he got us,” Smith told reporters.
Of course, the Seminoles boasted arguably the most talented starting 22 in the country last fall. Pruitt kicks off his first spring in Athens with a defense looking to prove that last season was an aberration. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they return 10 starters, including Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry in the secondary. That’s a group that could use a boost after losing safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, the team's third-leading tackler, who was dismissed in February for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Pruitt hasn’t been able to evaluate his roster the way he’d like -- when he spoke with SI.com, he was focused chiefly on recruiting -- but he recalls bits and pieces of the Bulldogs’ potential that he saw while studying tape at Florida State. The Seminoles and the Bulldogs shared common opponents in Clemson and Auburn in 2013. Pruitt said that the speed of those offenses kept Georgia on its heels, a common problem given the popularity of up-tempo schemes in the college game.
The speed of the sport has sparked plenty of discussion in recent months, and it became a nationwide talking point following the NCAA’s controversial 10-second substitution proposal, which was tabled by the Football Rules Committee on March 5. Pruitt and other defensive coaches are tasked with finding an edge against today’s high-powered attacks. The ’Noles did that under Pruitt, holding Clemson to an average of 3.79 yards per play in a 51-14 rout on Oct. 19, and limiting Auburn to 232 rushing yards – 104 below its season average – in a 34-31 triumph in the BCS title game on Jan. 6.
“How do they go fast?” Pruitt asked of up-tempo offenses. “That’s the first thing you’ve got to look at. How do these offenses go fast? Obviously it’s got to be the verbiage. Their calls have got to be very simple -- not simple in scheme, but simple in getting the call.
“I think from that perspective, you’ve got to go that way on defense. You’ve got to make your calls where they’re one-word calls. To me, that’s the first thing you’ve got to do as a defense.”
Pruitt said that the speed of the game isn’t an issue when officials allow time for both sides to substitute, and he noted that referees did an “outstanding job” in Florida State’s games last season. Still, he says that attempting to curb fast football with rule changes in the name of player safety seems like an uphill battle.
“As far as the speed of the game and all that, in my opinion, I just think you’ve got to change the way you coach a little bit,” Pruitt said. “If [offensive coaches] can coach and get the plays in and get them called, I think as a defensive coach, you’ve got to adapt and be able to do that yourself.
“And coach Saban would probably kill me for saying that, but that’s just my opinion.”
In 2014, the Bulldogs face Auburn, Missouri and South Carolina, which all ranked among the top half of the SEC in scoring offense last fall. Georgia also welcomes Clemson to Sanford Stadium on Aug. 30; despite their loss to the Seminoles, the Tigers averaged better than 40 points per game last season.
Pruitt comes to Georgia at a time when the natives are getting restless. Many feel that despite Richt’s overall record in Athens (126-45 in 13 seasons), the program has underachieved. Richt has never won a national title even after posting eight 10-win seasons, and last fall was considered one of the coach’s most talented teams before injuries decimated the roster. Bringing in a highly touted defensive coordinator with a BCS credentials only adds to the fan base fervor.
Pruitt has found success everywhere he’s been since jumping to the college level in 2007. It wasn’t long ago that Pruitt dreamed of coaching alongside Richt at Georgia. Now, he has a chance to help the Bulldogs land a berth in the first ever College Football Playoff.
“What the SEC’s done over the last seven or eight years nationally speaks for itself,” Pruitt said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work for coach Saban, I’ve had the opportunity to work for Jimbo and now coach Richt. That’s pretty good company to have your name attached to.”JOHNSON: Ten quarterback competitions to monitor in 2014 spring practice