ATHENS — Jeremy Pruitt strode up to a lectern in a brightly-lit studio at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall this past Tuesday, with a couple of dozen reporters crammed in front of him and about half as many television cameras trained down on him. They all were there to get Pruitt’s take on the upcoming 2015 football season.
Had they not known better, they’d have sworn they were hearing from the Georgia head coach. But they weren’t. While Pruitt’s official title is defensive coordinator, in this setting you could certainly add a slash and throw in “head honcho.”
As evidenced by this scene, Pruitt definitely has made an impact on the football program in his short time on staff. People have come to call it, “The Pruitt Effect.”
Indeed, there have been a lot of changes at UGA in the 19 months since Pruitt showed up as the new defensive coordinator in January of 2014. Sure, the defense the Bulldogs play is slightly different and significantly improved. But it goes way beyond that.
Pruitt’s imprint can be seen in many different areas. Georgia’s actual daily practice routine and schedule was altered at his behest that very spring first spring. Strength and conditioning drills also were redesigned at his recommendation. Soon the man heading up that entire enterprise — Joe Tereshinski Jr. — was moved out and replaced with Mark Hocke, a person with whom Pruitt worked at Alabama.
In fact, there have been numerous additions to the UGA athletic department’s payroll that have some sort of tie or another to Pruitt. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer, a former Alabama teammate, joined him right away last January. Offensive line coach Rob Sale, who worked for the Crimson Tide while Pruitt was there, came in a year later.
But the influence extends to Georgia’s football support ranks, which has grown considerably in size since Pruitt’s arrival. Director of player development Sam Petitto, player relations coordinator Brian Williams, quality control specialist Carter Blount, are among those who came to Georgia upon the recommendation of Pruitt. His fingerprints are all over recruiting as well.
“Coach Pruitt has had input without a doubt,” Georgia coach Mark Richt acknowledged.
Some might see Pruitt’s influence as usurping Richt’s authority as head coach. That’s not the case, those in the Bulldogs’ camp say.
“I think first of all it’s the leadership that Mark provides for this program,” Athletic Director Greg McGarity said of Richt. “I think one of Mark’s strengths is he’s able to draw from all his assistants. He’s not afraid to try new things. … He’ll listen to them and sometimes he’ll say, ‘let’s give it a try.’ His ability to listen and be able to change when he thinks things need to change is a strength.”
“We’ve got one boss around here and that’s Coach Richt,” Pruitt said.
Richt said he has appreciated Pruitt’s input since he’s been on staff, as he does from all of his assistant coaches. He said process changes that have been implemented the past year have also come from other assistants, including defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, from Auburn and the Tennessee Titans, Mike Ekeler, from Southern Cal and Nebraska, and, more recently, Brian Schottenheimer, from the NFL’s Rams and Jets.
“We have staff meetings on everything we do, and everything is open to discussion,” Richt said. “Any time you have people from different programs, you want to hear how they might have done this or that. Coach Pruitt has had input, without a doubt …. but we get a lot of ideas. Then we just kind of nail down what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.
“But there have been a lot of things that Coach Pruitt and Coach (Kevin) Sherrer in particular have brought from the places they’ve been.”
That would be Alabama, mainly. Many of the processes and procedures that Pruitt has instituted at Georgia closely resemble those employed by Nick Saban. Pruitt is a former Crimson Tide defensive back (1995-96) and, after a nine-year stint as a high school coach, he worked for Saban, first in support roles (2007-09), then as defensive backs coach (2010-12).
But Pruitt downplays the level of influence he has had at Georgia beyond coordinating the defense.
“We’ve got one boss around here and that’s Coach Richt,” Pruitt said. “As a head coach, your assistants kind of help make who you are. When you sit in a room and you start saying, ‘hey, who knows some names, who’s some guys we can bring in?,’ it’s no different than when we were at Alabama. When we got ready to hire somebody, they’d ask around the room: does anybody know anybody. Same thing at Florida State; same thing at Plainview High School. That’s the way the business works.”
That said, clearly Pruitt is not shy about speaking up and being heard in such situations.
“I usually speak my piece,” he said with a grin.
It’s hard not notice what Pruitt has been able to do with the Dogs’ defense. Georgia made across-the-board strides on that side of the ball last season.
In year one of Pruitt’s system, the Bulldogs improved in scoring defense (20.7 ppg from 29.0), yards allowed (337.2 ypg from 375.5) and passing yards allowed (170.4 from 227.4). The most dramatic improvement was in turnover margin (plus-16) – the fourth-best mark in school history.
Pruitt’s unit did that in a year that in which he was working with new starters – including two freshmen — at all but one of the five defensive backfield positions.
“It helped create a standard around here on the defensive side,” Pruitt said.
There was room for criticism, too, however. Thanks to colossal failings in losses to Florida and Georgia Tech, Georgia went backward in rush defense last season. It fell to 63rd nationally (166 ypg) last season after being a mediocre 43rd (148) the previous year.
But to focus on stats is missing the point about Pruitt’s influence, say Georgia players from both sides of the ball.
“He has just raised the standard for what we think of ourselves and has raised the standard on what we think is acceptable and what’s actually working hard and what’s clocking in and clocking out,” senior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said.
Said former receiver Chris Conley, now with the Kansas City Chiefs: “Restructuring and discipline. … Some of the guys came in and were like, ‘Oh, what’s going on? But he put his foot down and said, ‘either you buy into this system or you’re not gonna play.’ And that created that discipline.” and really it’s gotten the defense to the point where they’re all buying into what they’re doing, they’re sold on his schemes and his way and his mentality, and it’s really translated to the way they play. They play with a lot of confidence now.”