ATLANTA — The familiarity between the Alabama and Georgia coaching staffs, with each other and with their respective personnel, is at an all-time high in this, the fourth College Football Playoff championship game. But there are two Bulldogs players who are particularly close with Alabama defensive coordinator — and Tennessee coach — Jeremy Pruitt.
Senior safety Dominick Sanders made it clear he wouldn’t be at Georgia if not for Pruitt, who came to Tucker High School and presented him with a scholarship offer two days after getting the job. And Pruitt was the primary recruiter for Georgia with Mecole Hardman, a 5-star prospect from Elberton. In fact, Pruitt was attending church with Hardman’s mother in Elberton when news broke that coach Mark Richt had been fired in December 2015.
Pruitt couldn’t have known then that he, too, would soon be out of a job with the Bulldogs.
“Obviously, I was disappointed [not to be retained by Kirby Smart],” Pruitt said during Alabama’s CFP championship game media day at Philips Arena. “I really enjoyed my time there. We enjoyed our time there and had a really close bond with the players. I was wanting to try to finish what we started. But, you know, things happen and it’s worked out for both sides.”
It certainly has. Pruitt is in the national championship game for a second straight year as Alabama’s defensive coordinator and was hired as Tennessee’s coach last month. He’ll take Kevin Sherrer, Georgia’s outside linebackers coach and one of his best friends since coaching together at Alabama, with him to Knoxville to be his defensive coordinator. Both coaches chose to remain with their respective teams through the playoffs, so they will be on opposing sidelines Monday night. Regardless of outcome, they plan to travel together to Knoxville on Tuesday.
“It’s interesting because you might could overthink it,” Pruitt said of the title game. “You might start thinking, ‘If we do this, then Kirby might do this.’ So you try do it another way. They’re probably sitting there thinking the same thing. It’ll probably be hit or miss in the game. The big thing is it won’t be about any of us. It will be about the players that play the game.”
As for Georgia’s players, Pruitt has a particular affinity for Sanders. And Sanders for him.
“He’s still my guy,” said Sanders, a four-year starter for the Bulldogs and school record-holder — along with Bacarri Rambo and Jake Scott — in career interceptions. “They make decisions based on families and whatnot and he had to leave. At the end of the day, Coach [Mel] Tucker is a great coach. He’s been coaching me hard since he’s been here and I’ve learned a lot. But it’s just something players have to go through when coaches make decisions.”
Sanders said his plan was to sign with Central Florida, aka UCF, had Pruitt not recruited him to Georgia. He was a 3-star prospect coming out of Tucker High.
But Pruitt had been evaluating Sanders as defensive coordinator at Florida State and liked him a lot. He said he would have offered him a scholarship from the Seminoles if they had any available, but they didn’t.
“He has tremendous ball skills, a tremendous ball hawk,” Pruitt said. “That’s why he’s the all-time interception leader at Georgia now. He played for us as a true freshman, he can play in a lot of different spots. Just a good kid who’s really tough and instinctive and comes from a good family.”
Pruitt was instrumental not only in getting Hardman to Georgia, but also in convincing him and his family that he should play on defense. Hardman earned a 5-star recruiting grade as an “athlete” but was signed by Georgia with the expectation and on Pruitt’s recommendation that he play cornerback.
Hardman started out in the secondary, but Kirby Smart switched him to offense this past spring, and he has become a starter at flanker and the primary returner on both kickoffs and punts.
“Coach Pruitt is a great coach and I’m happy for him that he got the job at Tennessee,” Hardman said. “He was definitely a coach I got close to and I’m definitely going to see him before the game. But right now we’re just focused on Bama and what they’ve got to offer us and just go out there and get this ‘W.'”
Said Pruitt: “Mecole was going to come to Georgia the whole time. He acted like he wasn’t, but he was going to Georgia. But I enjoyed recruiting Mecole and his family.”
Interestingly, it will be Pruitt foremost who will be scheming for ways to stop Hardman in the championship game Monday.
“That’s something I look forward to,” Hardman said. “I like when teams scheme against me and I have to figure out what they’re trying to do against me. I’m going to give it all I can and make all the plays I can.”
Sanders said he hated to see Pruitt leave for Alabama since they had such a good relationship and had built such trust as player and coach. But he never wavered on his loyalty to Georgia and vowed to play his best for whomever ended up being his position coach and/or coordinator.
That it ended up being Tucker, who brought essentially the same defensive system from Alabama that Georgia was already running under Pruitt.
“I was never concerned,” Sanders said. “I just told myself whoever comes in, I’m just going to hone in on whatever they have to say and pay attention and let them know I’m willing to do whatever they say. That’s the conversation I had with Coach Tucker when he got here. That’s pretty much the conversation I had with Coach Tucker when he got here. Whatever you need me to do, I’m gonna do it.”
As for which one is better, Sanders wasn’t about to go there.
“Yeah, but I don’t compare coaches,” he said.
Suffice it to say, all of Georgia’s defensive players who were with the Bulldogs at the time seemed to have liked Pruitt, particularly those who labored in his secondary.
“He was the reason I came to Georgia,” junior Deandre Baker said. “He recruited me. Miami didn’t have a coach at the time. And the other schools were too far for me.”
As for how all the mutual familiarity might affect the contest, nobody can be sure.
“It’ll be a good matchup,” Baker said. “He’s a good coach. We’ve got good coaches. So it’ll be a good matchup. I feel like it won’t have an affect on me.”