ATHENS – A question to Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt this week was prefaced this way: “As someone who helped make Alabama what it has been the last six years …”
“Let me say this first,” he said. “I didn’t help make Alabama a program. Alabama was a program before I was even born.”
“And so … I kinda forgot what you asked after you said that.”
But Pruitt understood the point of the question, because it’s been the underlying theme of this week: Alabama and head coach Nick Saban, winner of three national championships since 2009, comes to visit Georgia, which has imported a number of Saban’s former staff members.
Three of Georgia’s nine assistant coaches were on Saban’s staff recently: Pruitt from 2006-12, outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer (at Alabama from 2010-12) and offensive line coach Rob Sale (at Alabama from 2007-11). And Mark Hocke, Georgia’s strength and conditioning coach, was on Alabama’s strength staff the past six years.
“Those guys all did a great job when they were here,” Saban said. “Kevin, did a good job, kind of followed Pruitt from being a defensive coordinator in high school. Hocke was right-hand man in the weight room, did an outstanding job with our players. And of course Rob Sale was with us for a long time as a GA and an intern. I knew he had a really, really bright future. I’m not surprised to see any of those guys do extremely well.”
Saban was asked whether the opposition having so many ties to his program was a compliment or something to worry about.
“Well I guess it’s a little bit of both,” Saban said. “Because I’m always happy to see guys who do a good job for us get better opportunities, especially in a quality program with a quality coach like Mark and Georgia. But you also know that they also know a lot about what you do and how you do it. So that’s not something that makes you comfortable.”
UGA linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer looks on during Wednesday’s practice. Sherrer served as Director of Player Development at Alabama before he was named a defensive assistant at the University of Georgia in January 2014.
Pruitt and company have tried not to make a big deal of their Alabama ties this week. Pruitt sat for a press conference and happily (mostly happily) took questions about it. The other three haven’t been available for interviews this week.
Their Georgia players also said the coaches haven’t made mention of their Alabama days, or used it in scouting reports.
“We all knew his background,” said Aaron Davis, a sophomore cornerback. “But he’s no different this week than he was last week.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt also has downplayed the Alabama influence, saying he didn’t set out to hire so many with ties to the Crimson Tide. It started when Will Friend, the team’s offensive line coach from 2011-14 and also an Alabama product, helped lure Pruitt, his college teammate away from Florida State in early 2014. Then Pruitt set about helping to bring in people he knew from Saban’s staff.
“It kind of spread from there,” Richt said. “But originally it was more a coincidence.”
Still, it’s hard not to see the creeping Saban influence into Richt’s program.
A number of quality control staffers have been added, including a few with Alabama ties. The recruiting department’s staff was increased. Practice routines were tweaked, with a lot more energy on the defensive side the past two years. Media access was curtailed, especially to assistant coaches. Less information has been getting out in general.
It also is evident in the way some coaches talk. Pruitt referred to the “organization,” a Saban-ism.
And then there’s the strength and conditioning program, which Hocke took over this year. The most noticeable change in that, players say, is the competitiveness in every part of the day, from the weight room to everywhere else.
Asked if that meant practices are more intense, Georgia fifth-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell said: “I would say so, yes.”
“Hocke is definitely very energetic,” Davis said. “He definitely tries to amp the energy in the room. Even for the guys that are energetic he always tells people to match his energy. I definitely think he brings a lot of that to our workouts, our practice, everything we do.”
Indeed, while Hocke has yet to sit down for a media session since he was hired at Georgia, his quotes from practice – encouraging shouts often while jumping up and down – could fill up several stories by themselves.
Richt, who himself came from Florida State in 2001, pointed out that there are assistant coaches with backgrounds at plenty of other programs: Auburn (defensive line coach Tracy Rocker), Southern California and Nebraska (inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler), LSU (Sale played there) and Wisconsin (running backs coach Thomas Brown).
“I’m a guy that’s very open-minded to listen and hear it out and see if there’s a better way, or even see if there’s a way that everybody just wants to buy into, because sometimes there’s more than one way to skin it,” Richt said. “The job I have is to make sure when I listen to these ideas and when we listen to them as a staff, that we talk it out and then we find what we think is the best practice and then everybody leaving that meeting room together. That’s the main thing. But there’s been a lot of good ideas from a lot of places, but certainly from guys that have coached at Alabama.”
So what about that question to Pruitt about helping Alabama to its three national titles? It was re-prefaced this way: He played a role in his six years in Alabama’s run. Did he take anything from there to Georgia?
“I was very blessed to work with the people at Alabama,” Pruitt said. “So yeah, I think it’s hard to argue what they’ve done over there. It’s been successful. So you’ve gotta take a little bit of it and use it to your advantage.”