ATHENS – As everyone knows, or should at this point, Kirby Smart can be a bit of a smart aleck. Most coaches are, actually. And contrary to what some might suspect, it’s something I actually like about Georgia’s young coach. I mean, nobody likes to be derided or ridiculed, and I’m certain that’s not ever Smart’s intention. He just likes to tease a little bit sometimes.
Like earlier this week when I was asking him about Jeremy Pruitt. Well, I was trying to ask him about Pruitt, Alabama’s short-timer of a defensive coordinator, as well as Kevin Sherrer, Georgia’s short-timer of an outside linebackers coach. But I didn’t phrase my question very well, which is to say it was badly phrased. And Smart, quite legitimately I’d say, was trying to figure out exactly what it was I wanted to know from him.
So, in the interest of just being done with the question, Smart spouted, “Yeah, I’ve got a good relationship with Jeremy. I’ve got a good relationship with Kevin. They’ve got a good relationship with each other. Kevin has got a good relationship with Nick (Saban). There’s a lot of relationships across the board. I mean, I really don’t know what you’re hinting at.”
Well, actually Smart did. And eventually he’d get around to it.
The fact is, the presence of those two soon-to-be-gone assistant coaches is yet another interesting dynamic to Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game between Alabama and Georgia. Pruitt, who once worked on Smart’s staff at Alabama and was defensive coordinator at Georgia before Smart decided not to retain him, has since been named head coach at Tennessee but will remain as the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator through Monday’s title game.
Pruitt is handling his situation exactly the way Smart did after he was appointed Georgia’s head coach in December 2015. That is, Smart opted to remain the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator through their playoff run that season. He then assumed his head coaching job with the Bulldogs on a full-time basis the day after Alabama won the championship.
Meanwhile, Sherrer continues to be employed by Georgia. But he has already gone to work, at least for a little while, as Pruitt’s defensive coordinator at Tennessee. He, too, vowed to stay with the Bulldogs until their playoff run ended. It hasn’t yet, you’ll note.
Pruitt and Sherrer also happen to be best friends.
“Jeremy and I have known each other for 25 years,” Sherrer said last week during Rose Bowl media day in Los Angeles. “We’ve played together, we’ve coached together at multiple places. When you get into the coaching world and become friends with these guys, you’re always talking about coaching together. ‘Hey, maybe we’ll get a chance to coach together again.’ or whatever. So knowing him, knowing the staff he’s put together, it wasn’t a hard decision to make, I can say.”
That’s just one example of what will be some intimate familiarity on both sidelines on Monday. Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker came with Smart from Alabama, where he was secondary coach. So did Glenn Schumann, who was a defensive analyst for the Crimson Tide but is inside linebackers coach for the Bulldogs.
But Smart scoffed at the notion that will result in an advantage for either team or that there could possibly be any ulterior motives for anybody.
“I know that Kevin wants to win this game for the University of Georgia, and Kevin wants to finish something he was a part of,” Smart said, very serious now. “I think it speaks to his brand the rest of his career if he’s able to win a national championship here. And I certainly think Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, all the kids he’s coached for the last four years, he wants to do well for those guys. And I’m sure Jeremy is the same way for the players that he recruited to Alabama.”
Smart technically could replace Sherrer if he wanted because he has already hired his replacement. Smart confirmed Tuesday that he has hired Dan Lanning, who was coaching inside linebackers at Memphis. Lanning is expected to be with the team in Atlanta but he can’t take on any active coaching role as long as the Bulldogs still have nine full-time assistants.
Pruitt and Sherrer are both Alabama graduates and football lettermen. That they’re joining forces at Tennessee, which counts both the Crimson Tide and Georgia among their top rivals, is an interesting wrinkle. What they’ve done so far bodes well for the Vols.
Each enjoyed a rapid rise from high school assistants to college support staffers and then position coaches and coordinators. Sherrer was defensive coordinator at South Alabama before joining Pruitt at Georgia in 2013. He also did a great job as interim coordinator for the Bulldogs when they played Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl while Smart wrapped his work with the Crimson Tide. Georgia held Saquon Barkley to 69 yards and defeated the Nittany Lions 24-17.
At that point, it already had been determined that Pruitt wasn’t going to be retained by Smart at Georgia. So, Pruitt was actually in an observer role with Alabama during its 2015 playoff run, which means he was getting to observe up close Smart a lot.
Smart has never fully explained why he did not retain Pruitt at Georgia and instead brought over Tucker after the playoffs. Pruitt obviously landed nicely back with the Tide. Both defenses have flourished since.
Obviously, it was a good move for the 43-year-old Pruitt, who became the Vols head coach after a protracted and highly criticized search following the dismissal of Butch Jones. Say what you will about all that, but Pruitt’s directive going forward is clear: Beat Georgia and beat Alabama. This week at least, it’s simply beat Georgia.
Pruitt has kept a low profile since accepting the Tennessee job and making the decision to stick with the Tide. At last week’s mandatory media availability at the Sugar Bowl, Pruitt showed up with about 10 minutes remaining in the 45-minute session and left about 5 minutes after that. And what he did say wasn’t really anything in the way of enlightening.
“It hasn’t been (hard),” he said at the Marriott Downtown New Orleans. “I’m employed by Tennessee and I’m recruiting for Tennessee every day. But when I get here, I owe it to these guys that I helped recruit to Alabama. We always talk about you want to finish what you start, and I’m excited to try and help give these guys an opportunity to get what they want, because that’s what we talked about when we recruited them. So, I owe it to these guys to do the best I can to help them, and there’s plenty of hours in the day to balance it.”
Pruitt told Mike Griffith, who covers Tennessee for SEC Country, that he stays in touch with all his former players, including some he’s had at Florida State and Georgia.
“It’s not a four-year commitment to me; it’s a lifetime commitment,” he said. “When I get to Tennessee, some of the guys we didn’t get, I still talk to. When you recruit guys, you build relationships and it lasts a lifetime.”
Neither Sherrer nor Pruitt have been available to talk since their teams won their respective semifinals. Pruitt’s defense, ranked No. 1 in the nation, looked like it as it held Clemson to 2 field goals in a 24-6 victory. Georgia’s defense struggled considerably against Oklahoma, which came in with the nation’s top offense, not to mention the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. The Sooners finished with 48 points and 531 yards offense, but only 160 after halftime and just 29 yards in the third quarter. Sherrer’s outside linebackers played a big role in the game, particularly Lorenzo Carter, who speaks passionately about his love for playing for Sherrer.
As for what’s going on this week in Atlanta, all coaches will be available Saturday morning when the College Football Playoff holds its media day at Philips Arena. The Bulldogs go at 9 a.m. followed by Alabama at 10:15.
Nobody is expecting any fireworks. Those will come after the game, regardless of the outcome, when Pruitt and Sherrer hop together in a vehicle and ride north on I-75 up to Rocky Top. You can be sure there will be a recruiting stop or 50 in Georgia and Alabama along the way.
That plan is probably already mapped out. Smart knows all about that. It was about this time in 2016 that he was getting Jake Fromm to flip from Alabama to Georgia and locking up Riley Ridley, Calvin’s brother, as an early enrollee.
“On the recruiting side of things, they’re working together,” Smart said, “and there’s not a whole lot of recruiting going on right now with the dead period. But, I mean, I went through that. I think you’ve got to separate what you’re doing. When you’re working for the game, you’re working for the game. You’re working for recruiting, you’re working for Tennessee. If you’re professional about your job, that’s not really a problem.”