Athens, Ga.—I asked Josh Dawson, Georgia’s senior defensive tackle, to give me one sentence to describe Jeremy Pruitt, the Bulldogs’ second-year defensive coordinator.
Dawson didn’t hesitate.
“Coach Pruitt tells us that in order to be a good player, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said Dawson.
And that, more than any flowery words I could give you, pretty much describes the impact Pruitt has had in his first 20 months at Georgia.
“The difference between where we started when he got here and where we are now is the difference in night and day,” said Dawson. “We didn’t always play our best last season but we made a good first step. Now we are a confident football team. We are really looking forward to this season.”
Pruitt, a former defensive back at Alabama, came to Georgia in January of 2014 after serving as defensive coordinator on Florida State’s 2013 national championship team. Prior to that he served as Nick Saban’s secondary coach at Alabama. Before that he was an assistant coach a Hoover (Ala.) High School, one of the nation’s most decorated prep programs. He also was an assistant for his father, Dale, a very successful high school coach in Alabama.
In short, Pruitt had been around a lot of winning football prior to his arrival in Athens. So it should come as no surprise that Pruitt was not at all bashful about expressing his opinion on what was working at Georgia and what could be improved—from recruiting, to strength and conditioning, to practice schedules, to the need for an indoor practice facility.
Mark Richt, the head coach who hired him, watched and listened. And much of what Pruitt suggested was adopted by the Georgia program.
“The thing I like about Coach Pruitt is his ability to teach,” Richt told me. “When he was installing the defense he would make sure that our guys understood each part of it before moving to the next part. I like that. He has made contributions in a number of areas in our program. It’s always good to have new ideas.”
Pruitt’s influence on many aspects of Georgia’s football program has been so pronounced that the writers who cover the Bulldogs on a regular basis have given it a name: “The Pruitt Effect.”
“The best thing I can say about Coach Pruitt is that he loves his players and treats them like men,” said Dawson. “He cares about us. But when we walk into this building it is all business. It’s time to go to work.”
When I recently visited Pruitt in his office his assessment of the first season at Georgia was mixed.
The statistics were average: Georgia finished sixth in the SEC in total defense (337.2 ypg), fifth in scoring defense (20.7 ppg), eighth in rushing defense (166.8 yg), and second in pass defense (170.4 ypg). The pass defense statistic is misleading because opponents were able to run the ball so effectively.
There were good moments, like the 34-0 win at Missouri and a 34-7 domination of Auburn. And there were downright embarrassing moments, like the 38-20 loss to Florida when Georgia’s defense gave up 418 yards rushing against a Gator team that had not been able to move the ball on anybody. That loss ultimately cost Georgia a trip to the SEC Championship game.
Then there was the crushing 30-24 loss to Georgia Tech when the Bulldogs gave up 399 yards rushing.
Still, said Pruitt, in the grand scheme of things it was a good first year.
“The biggest thing we improved last season was our attitude,” said Pruitt. “When we got here we set a standard and tried to get everybody to live up to that standard. We raised the expectations on a daily basis and our kids over time bought in.
“The one thing we didn’t do was play to that standard all the time. When you look back at our season there were games we played really well. There were games when we didn’t play well. Then there were games when we played well in spurts and then we would have a lapse. We have to learn how to avoid that.”
The biggest improvement Georgia made last season was in the all-important turnover margin (giveaways vs. takeaways). In 2013, the year before Pruitt arrived, Georgia was minus-seven in turnovers.
Last season Georgia’s defense forced 29 turnovers (13 fumble recoveries, 16 interceptions) which were second only to Florida (30) and Ole Miss (32). Georgia finished plus-16 in turnovers which led the SEC by a wide margin. Missouri was second with plus-nine.
In 2013 Georgia only intercepted six passes. Last season, with a secondary filled with young players, Georgia had 16 interceptions.
“It (forcing turnovers) is something we work on in practice because if you don’t do it in practice you won’t do it in a game,” said Pruitt. “You also have to recruit guys who have great ball skills. If a guy wasn’t causing fumbles in high school he’s probably not going to do it in college. Some guys just have an instinctive ability to create turnovers. But you have to go find them.”
Given the progress that Georgia made in year one under Pruitt, there is a strong belief here—and elsewhere–that things will be significantly better in year two.
“Jeremy Pruitt got more out of his talent at Georgia than just about anybody else in the conference,” another SEC defensive coordinator told me. “Everybody who has to play Georgia noticed.”
There are some holes to fill up front, but there are proven, dependable players like Dawson and Sterling Bailey. Then there is the highly-regarded Trent Thompson, billed as one of the nation’s best high school players last season.
Georgia has one of the best linebacker groups in college football led by Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. Floyd has had some shoulder issues but when he’s healthy Pruitt calls him “one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around.”
Floyd made his bones as an outside linebacker but he is versatile enough to play inside, which he will do at times this season to make room for sophomore Lorenzo Carter, who had 41 tackles and 4.5 sacks in limited playing time as a freshman. Remember that name folks. He is going to be a superstar.
Georgia got those 16 interceptions last season with a secondary that was starting three freshmen at season’s end.
“And the thing there is that we signed 17 defensive players in this recruiting class so there may be some guys who started last year who might not play as much,” said Pruitt. “We have a lot more runners and strikers on this defense. They will be young but I’m excited about it.”
With a veteran offensive line and the best stable of running backs in the country, Georgia is going to score a lot of points. But if the Bulldogs are going to win the SEC East, as many have predicted, the defense will have to avoid the lapses that cost them dearly in 2014. Pruitt believes that can happen.
“We learned how to go about our daily business last season,” said Pruitt. “It didn’t show on the field all the time but I think we laid the foundation for the years to come. I like where we are right now.”
Next stop: Kentucky