ATHENS, Ga. — The Bulldogs may have lost Todd Grantham, but they gained a three-time national champion just two days later.
Surrounded by a flurry of activity in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, Georgia introduced new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt – the man who just helped guide Florida State to a BCS title. Under the first-year college coordinator, the Seminoles finished first nationally in scoring and pass defense while also ranking third in turnover margin. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, finished 79th in scoring defense and 101st in turnover margin in 2013.
You could call it an upgrade, though that may be an understatement. And if the numbers don’t show enough, the players’ reactions to Pruitt’s arrival just might say it all.
“The guys broke out in applause when he walked in the door,” head coach Mark Richt said on Wednesday. “They were very grateful in some way, shape or form. He believed in those guys in the room already before he even met them. And when he got done talking, they broke out in applause again, and I’ve never seen that happen in a meeting since I’ve been coaching for 30-something years. I think we got their attention.”
It would be easy for anyone to see why Georgia was so interested with one of the fastest-rising assistant coaches in the nation after Grantham left. But what exactly was it that managed to draw Pruitt away from the reigning champs of Tallahassee?
Richt, of course, was a big part of that. Pruitt made it clear right away that he held a profound respect for the man who had run UGA football for more than a decade. But the other, less well-known connection was offensive line coach Will Friend, with whom Pruitt is quite close.
“[He] is one of my best friends. We were college roommates and we stay in touch. We talk weekly,” he said. “Obviously when the job came open, he mentioned it to me and asked me if I was interested. Who wouldn’t be interested in this job?”
Pruitt brings plenty of positives to the table outside of his abilities as a coordinator. For one, the Bulldogs will be able to continue running their 3-4 scheme, though Pruitt expects the team to become more multiple on defense in 2014. This past season, Florida State utilized a variety of formations and alignments on defense.
“We are and will be a 3-4 defense,” Pruitt said. “Teams that are 3-4, you see them line up in 4-3. I think you got to be able to do both.”
He also comes in with an established track record of success as a recruiter, highlighted after earning 247Sports National Recruiter of the Year honors in 2012. No doubt, with National Signing Day looming on the horizon, Georgia will be able to put those talents to use right away.
“When you’re a high school coach, there’s a lot of facets besides just coaching. You’re teaching them, you’re picking them up, you’re taking them back and forth from school, you’re a psychologist. Relationships, I think that’s what it’s all about,” Pruitt said.
But perhaps the most significant departure from Grantham, at least from a football standpoint, will be Pruitt’s fundamental approach and his experience coaching a number of talented secondaries, first at Alabama and then Florida State. Often times last season, the young Bulldogs struggled to grasp Grantham’s complex, NFL-derived scheme.
With Pruitt, UGA may have a more “back to the basics” movement on a defense that needs it after the missed tackles and blown coverages of 2013.
“A lot of people try to make football harder than what it is. It’s the details. It’s blocking. It’s tackling. It’s the fundamentals. It’s getting off blocks. You want to create turnovers, then you have to practice creating turnovers,” Pruitt said. “There’s a lot of details to it that sometimes get overlooked. My background in high school where you’re teaching junior-high kids, you’re teaching the fundamentals of the game. That’s how I’ll coach.”
And the icing on the cake? Pruitt wants to help on special teams, which was another area where the Bulldogs struggled to find consistency in 2013 (in fact, they ranked 110th nationally in kickoff return average, second-worst nationally on punt return average with everything from muffed punts to dropped snaps in between).
“Coach said ‘hey is it OK if I help coach some special teams.’ That’s music to my ears,” Richt said.
The rest of the defensive coaching staff should begin to take shape fairly quickly now that the big hire is out of the way. Richt said that defensive line coach Chris Wilson and inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti are welcome to stay if they so choose (he believes they will). That leaves an outside linebackers coach as the only remaining vacancy.
The bottom line? Richt must have made an excellent sales pitch because this hire is nothing short of a best-case scenario for Georgia. And Pruitt, apparently, feels the same way.
“There’s no doubt this is the best conference in the country. And I feel like the University of Georgia is the best school in the conference,” he said.