ATHENS -- Corey Moore had done the drill wrong, and Jeremy Pruitt wasn’t happy. He was even more unhappy when Moore began trying to explain why he had messed up.
“Is that what you’re gonna have, what we had last year, making excuses?” Pruitt said, according to Moore.
Moore, a senior safety, shook his head and said “no.” And Pruitt went on with the drill.
“That’s what we need,” Moore said later in an interview. “Some people hate it. But, at the end of the day, it’s gonna be for the best.”
When the Georgia football team begins its season in 13 days, there will be no more closely watched group than the secondary. Pruitt’s hiring for this season was meant to be a kind of double-whammy improvement: As defensive coordinator, he would simplify the schemes to help the entire unit, and as secondary coach he would fix the weak link of the defense.
It can be easy to overrate the changes wrought by a new coaching staff: The old saying that’s new and here is great and what’s old and gone was wrong. The reality is almost always somewhere in between.
But Georgia players, particularly in the secondary, are adamant in their assessment of Pruitt’s changes. There is also an obvious difference in the energy level at practices, at least during the periods available to media viewing, between this year and last year.
Whether that translates to drastic improvement, of course, remains to be seen.
“We’re getting better as a unit. That’s one thing I can tell you guys,” Moore said. “We’re taking little biddy strides, but we’re getting better as a unit and we will be ready the first game.”
There seem to be three prongs -- not necessarily by design -- to Pruitt’s overhaul of the secondary. There is the simplification of the calls, to prevent the confusion that players had before the snap last year. There are the personnel evaluations, which showed no favoritism toward last year’s players, in an effort to make everyone step up their game.
Finally, there is the emphasis at individual improvement, mainly in Pruitt’s secondary. The word that comes up often is “detail.” Receiver Chris Conley, in explaining why he thought senior cornerback Damian Swann would have a better season, said, “unfortunately in the past, there wasn’t a lot of detail given.”
Pruitt, who coached in high school the majority of his career, put it this way when he was hired back in January:
“To me, a lot of people try to make football harder than it is. It’s the details, it’s blocking, it’s tackling, it’s fundamentals, it’s getting off the blocks. There are a lot of details to it that I think get overlooked, and I think with my background in high school, you’re sitting there teaching junior high kids about the fundamentals of how to play the game and how to get in a stance. That’s how I’ll coach.”
In the ensuing eight months, various players have noticed that.
Quarterback Hutson Mason has noticed that the defense as a whole is emphasizing trying to strip the ball.
“One guy’s holding him up, and the other guy’s coming to strip it,” Mason said. “They’ve caused a lot of fumbles in practice, they caused at least one (in the first scrimmage). That’s something different I see in the coaching staff compared to the other one.”
Mason pointed to one practice drill in which the offense attempted a screen and the running back had it stripped by a defensive lineman.
“That’s it. In a real game, that’s it,” Mason said.
Sophomore J.J. Green, who moved to the secondary after playing tailback last year, pointed to another emphasis.
“Open-field tackling,” he said.
The fan might think that you either know how to tackle or you don’t, but at the college level there’s still plenty of technique that needs to be taught.
For instance, Green said Pruitt taught him that when he’s trying to wrap up he should press into the offensive player’s hip, making it harder for the runner to put a move on the defender.
“You don’t want to get embarrassed on TV,” Green said.
Then there are the less obvious technique improvements that Pruitt is trying to teach. Watching him in secondary drills, it becomes evident: Drills on seemingly mundane things that will only happen once or twice in a game. A sideline tip drill, in which Pruitt tosses passes and defensive backs straddle the sideline and try to tip it away.
It’s reminiscent of the drills that Georgia receivers coach Tony Ball leads -- teaching receivers to catch one-hop passes or to catch a ball in the corner of the end zone with their left hand. Also mundane, also seemingly crazy. But Georgia’s receivers have flourished lately, with three-stars emerging as starters (Conley and Michael Bennett) and walk-ons becoming contributors.
In Pruitt’s case, they are the same drills he used last season at Florida State and the previous three years at Alabama.
“He puts you in every scenario in football, live football,” Moore said. “That’s what we need, and what we didn’t have last year.”
Moore used this word to describe Pruitt: “Perfectionist.”
“He feels like if someone’s not doing their job in the program, you should confront them,” he said. “If he’s not doing his job, he wants you to confront him, and if you’re not doing your job he’s gonna confront you. I feel like that was our biggest thing last year: We didn’t have too many people confronting each other, and just taking accountability when we were wrong.”
Such as that time in practice.
Again, it may prove to be a lot of offseason talk. Four years ago, defensive players were also bullish on the changes brought by Todd Grantham. But Grantham’s changes were more schematic. Pruitt’s have been different and, the Bulldogs fervently believe, stronger.
“You see a lot more team unity, I think you see a lot more discipline, I think you see a lot more guys hustling to the ball,” Mason said. “I think that’s the improvement in the new defense you’re gonna see this year. You’re gonna see a defense with a lot more attitude and a lot more effort.”