Pruitt brings winning pedigree, experienced staff to UGA defense

It was sort of like Microsoft nabbing a bigwig from Apple days after the launch of the iPhone.


Marc Weiszer

Or maybe Burger King raiding McDonald’s a week after the Big Mac took off.

Georgia coach Mark Richt was in search of a defensive coordinator last January after Todd Grantham left for Louisville. Richt quickly landed Jeremy Pruitt, fresh off winning the national title with Florida State.

Pruitt received a standing ovation from the players when he first met them and his influence in the program has gone beyond trying to turn around the underperforming defensive unit he took over or the secondary that he’s in charge of fixing.

“He’s brought in confidence, he’s brought in swag, he’s brought in attitude,” as senior safety Corey Moore put it.

Georgia’s defense was sorely lacking in those first two attributes last season and maybe had too many of the third and not in a good way.

“We’re a lot more focused,” defensive end Josh Dawson said. “It’s all about business, just like our coaches. As soon as we step on that playing field, it’s business. All the playing has to stop.”

A business-like attitude some might say that Nick Saban has at Alabama, where Pruitt coached the defensive backs under the Crimson Tide head coach for three seasons, winning two more national championships in 2011 and 2012.

He moved on to Florida State to run its defense. Under Pruitt, the Seminoles led the nation in scoring defense (12.1 points per game) and were third in total defense (281.4).

“There was nothing there that needed to be fixed,” Pruitt said. “They had been playing really good defense for quite some time. We changed kind of the philosophy and basically the scheme.”

So what will Pruitt mean for Georgia?

Kirk Herbsteit, the top analyst for ABC and ESPN, thinks plenty.

“Let’s face it even though Jameis Winston got a lot of the attention, if you really followed Florida State, their defense had a lot to do with them winning a championship,” Herbstreit said. “Instead of a victory lap, he got on a plane and went to Athens. That was amazing to me. I think he is basically a coach that brings a lot of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s mannerisms and scheme — kind of a hybrid 4-3 with 3-4 tendencies — and he loves to confuse offensive linemen, he loves to confuse quarterbacks, has a way of relating to players, gets them to play hard. He can simplify things and yet make it complicated for the offense at the same time.”

The Seminoles were already in the top three in total defense, pass defense and rush defense the season before Pruitt arrived.

Asked about the impact Pruitt made in his one season in Tallahassee, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher put it like this: “The system he ran and we wanted to run, he did a good job of organizing and calling the game.”

Fisher didn’t want to get into how fast he thought Pruitt might be able to turn around a Georgia defense that ranked tied for 78th in the nation in scoring defense last season and 45th in total defense: “I have no idea. I have no ideas what Georgia’s players are, what their mindset, what their team temperament is. There are so many other things you don’t all realize, this team here, our team, was ready to play, we had a great temperament, we had a great culture. I don’t know, not that Georgia doesn’t have a culture, they’ve obviously been successful, I’m sure they’ll be successful, they have good players, but I can’t speak about someone else’s team. I knew we would have a good defense whoever we had a year ago. Now Jeremy did a tremendous job, but I think our temperament, our leadership and our talent level were excellent.”

Pruitt seems to be ushering in a culture change of sorts after Grantham, who coached in the NFL for 11 seasons, and his entire defensive staff departed.

“I think the biggest impact is the way of doing things around here,” defensive tackle Sterling Bailey said. “Not doing everything halfway. Doing it fully, putting your all into it.”

Pruitt shrugged off player attrition this offseason including the dismissals of safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons and the transfer of cornerback Shaq Wiggins.

He’s about as hands on as can be as the position coach on the area of the defense that had the biggest breakdowns last season.

“I think when a coordinator is in charge of the backfield and understands what it means to play that position, play those positions, I don’t think he’s going to call anything that those guys can’t execute,” Richt said. “The worst thing that can happen is give up a big play because somebody blew it, poor communication, whatever it is. Jeremy is going to make sure that whatever gets called in that game that secondary is going to be able to execute.”

The confusion and communication breakdowns that too often marked the back end of Georgia’s defense last season hasn’t been apparent this preseason.

“I do think we are becoming better technicians, I think we’re communicating better,” Richt said.

Pruitt has seemed to mesh well with coaches already on staff. It helped that his good friend Will Friend coaches the offensive line.

Pruitt’s influence can be seen in the way Georgia practices — doing “two-spotting” to allow more repetitions on different fields — and he helped spearhead tweaks in the offseason conditioning program to retool bodies.

Richt has listened to ideas from new staff members and been open to different ways of doing things.

“Coach Pruitt, he’s a proven coach,” Richt said. “He’s won everywhere he’s been. Not only Coach Pruitt, but the rest of our defensive staff.”

Pruitt’s high school coaching background — at Hoover, Fort Payne and Plainview High in Alabama — and those of new defensive assistants Kevin Sherrer. Mike Ekeler and Tracy Rocker make them adept at teaching the basics, Richt said.

“They all coached high school ball, which I think is great,” Richt said. “They know how to take a kid from ground zero. They know how to teach fundamentals extremely well. They’ve all been on college teams that have won national championships. There’s a lot of credibility as they come in. But I think these guys know what it looks like to win big, and they’ve put in a system of how we’re going to go about our business. The guys are responding well to that. There’s a lot of accountability that goes along with it, as well.”

Pruitt outlined his philosophy on the day he was introduced at Georgia: “To me a lot of people try to make football harder than it is. It’s the details, it’s blocking, it’s tackling, it’s fundamentals, it’s getting off the blocks.”

Now Georgia players are ready to see their months of preparation under Pruitt turn into better results on the field.

“He’s been there, he’s won national championships, he’s helped guys get to the NFL,” cornerback Damian Swann said. “He came up under one of the best coaches in football so he knows what he’s talking about, he’s done it before, he’s put it together. We’re really excited to be under him and under his play calling.”

Georgia returns eight defensive starters. There are big questions on the back end where newcomers are in line to start, but the front seven looks formidable.

“He inherited a veteran group,” Herbstreit said. “Between him and the skill that they have coming back on offense is a big reason I like Georgia to win the SEC East. I’m very, very excited to see the difference that Jeremy is going to make this year with that defense. I think it will be profound.”

Follow marcweiszer

marcweiszer

RT @chris_starrs: UGA’s Christian Payne saw his first playing time last week against Arkansas. http://t.co/eFBPVIEFWV

3 hours ago