ATHENS – Jeremy Pruitt was sitting in the Georgia team meeting room on national signing day, taking questions about recruiting, when someone tried to ask him about a current player: Would Tramel Terry, who was moved to safety during bowl practice, remain there under Pruitt?
Georgia’s new defensive coordinator hesitated a second, looking unsure.
“I guess,” Pruitt finally said, not at all forcefully.
Another reporter asked if Pruitt knew who Terry was.
“I know Tramel. He came off an injury, I think?” Pruitt said. “We really hadn’t gotten into that. We’ve been focusing on recruiting until we get the last deal in, and then we’ll move on to the next phase.”
That next phase is now closer, with Georgia due to begin spring practice next month. The above exchange shows how little Pruitt worried about his returning personnel his first month on the job, not because he didn’t care, but because the concentration was on recruiting.
But the recruits don’t arrive until August, and for the past few weeks – in between moving his stuff from Tallahassee to Athens – Pruitt has surely been studying film of his new defense.
Pruitt’s hiring, and the turnover of the entire defensive staff, means more than different schemes and strategies this year. It also means a fresh start for every defensive player. Players in the doghouse under the old regime get a new chance to make a first impression. Players who succeeded before have to prove themselves again.
Asked if every job was open, Pruitt answered “absolutely.”
“Everybody’s got a clean slate,” he said. “And to me that’s kind of the way it’ll be every spring. It’s not about what you did last year, it’s about what you’re gonna do moving forward. I would say every job is open, and I’m not really concerned about what happened in the past, from this point on.”
Previous defensive coordinator Todd Grantham wasn’t exactly known for subbing. His NFL background made Grantham used to getting by with a short bench. So more than a few Georgia defensive players will be enthusiastic about a chance for a fresh start.
But here are the players who should benefit the most from that clean slate:
DL Jonathan Taylor: There was a lot of hype about Taylor entering last season, his redshirt freshman year. But he finished with just nine tackles and one sack in 10 games. On the three-deep depth chart, Taylor would seem to start out behind Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey at end and Chris Mayes at nose tackle. But new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker will have a clean slate too.
DE Josh Dawson: The former four-star recruit hasn’t played much his first two seasons, and probably could have used a redshirt year at some point. It will be interesting to see what Pruitt and co. want to do with Dawson, as he could play end or one of the outside linebacker spots.
OLB James DeLoach: Last year DeLoach began the preseason as the first-team outside linebacker, opposite of Jordan Jenkins. Then Leonard Floyd got to campus and DeLoach went to second team. It’s doubtful that DeLoach can supplant Floyd or Jenkins, but new schemes and new ideas could find a way to get DeLoach on the field.
ILB Reggie Carter: You can’t really argue with the decision last year to start Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera at inside linebacker. Wilson was a consensus first-team All-SEC pick and Herrera was voted the team’s defensive MVP. But you can argue that Georgia didn’t sub enough, or find creative ways to get Carter – a speedier linebacker than Wilson or Herrera – on the field. For instance, a dime package on passing downs with Carter in the middle of the field would have been interesting.
ILB Tim Kimbrough: The Indianapolis native was the next freshman on the depth chart last year, after Carter. Kimbrough, Johnny O’Neal and Ryne Rankin each only played on special teams and at the end of blowouts.
CB Sheldon Dawson and Brendan Langley: You could actually just list every cornerback here. But Dawson, who began the preseason as a starter, and Langley, who began the season as a starter, stand out because both were only coming off the bench by the end of last year. Langley was practically off the radar. Damian Swann and Shaq Wiggins would have been the clear starters in the spring under the old regime. But Pruitt won’t be beholden to that, and he also – recurring theme here – be much more willing to use different packages that get subs on the field.
FS Tray Matthews: After emerging as the defensive story of spring practice last year, the freshman struggled as a freshman, with injuries the main culprit. But even when healthy Matthews sometimes found himself behind fellow freshman Quincy Mauger. For Matthews, it’s not so much a matter of not getting a chance with the new staff. He got one last year. The benefit for him would come if Pruitt comes in and lights a fire under him. There was some thought within the team last year that Matthews, after proving himself in the spring, didn’t push himself as hard in the fall.
S-OLB Josh Harvey-Clemons: Yes, he's suspended the first three games, and yes there's an emotional temptation if you're in the program to just throw him aside. But Harvey-Clemons' mistakes came under the former staff, and he's still a very talented player. Grantham thought a lot of him too, but couldn't find the best way to use him. Pruitt and company now take their stab at it. Update: Never mind.
Terry: Doubtless, Pruitt has been caught up to speed on why the previous staff wanted Terry on defense. The redshirt freshman was already going to be an intriguing name to watch in the spring. He becomes an even more intriguing name if Pruitt, having thrown open the safety starting jobs, doesn't care that Terry just moved there.
And don’t forget: A litany of players who either redshirted last year or didn’t play much, any of whom could jump into the equation by making good first impressions with the new staff:
- DL Mike Thornton, Sr.
- DL John Atkins, R-Fr.
- DL De’Andre Johnson, R-Fr.
- ILB Brandon Burrows, Sr.
- OLB Shaun McGee, R-Fr.
- DE/OLB Davin Bellamy, R-Fr.
- ILB Paris Bostick, R-Fr.
- CB Devin Bowman, Jr.
- CB Kennar Johnson, Jr.
- CB Reggie Wilkerson, R-Fr.
And before you ask: Players not mentioned here are either walk-ons or returning starters/key players.