ATHENS — Jeremy Pruitt paced around a walkway Tuesday afternoon, making phone calls outside the offices of the Georgia football team. It was quiet, other than the sound of Pruitt’s voice.
That was quite the contrast from eight days before, when Pruitt and Florida State were in Pasadena, Calif., celebrating a national championship. It was the third straight national title for Pruitt.
Now Georgia is hoping Pruitt can celebrate a fourth one, this time with the Bulldogs.
Pruitt bolted Florida State on Tuesday to become Georgia’s defensive coordinator, a coup for the Bulldogs, snagging away a coach many believe is a rising star in the business. He has only been a full-time college football coach for four seasons, including the first three as Alabama’s secondary coach, but he already has three national championship rings.
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Georgia head coach Mark Richt’s official statement was two words long.
“I’m ecstatic,” Richt said, simply.
Richt, himself a former Florida State assistant, needed just two days to replace Todd Grantham, whose departure for Louisville was announced Sunday evening. Pruitt, 39, was the top choice from the beginning, according to sources, once Richt learned he could get him.
Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend played a key role in the fast courtship. Friend and Pruitt were roommates at Alabama in the early 1990s.
It also helped that Georgia could pay more. Pruitt is set to receive a three-year contract worth at least $850,000 annually, according to several sources. He earned $500,000 on a one-year contract this past season.
“This is an outstanding professional and personal opportunity,” Pruitt said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to meeting the current players and getting on the road to visit with recruits.”
It is not believed that Kirby Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, was a serious candidate this time around. Smart, a former Georgia player and assistant coach, came close to returning four years ago but decided to stick with the Crimson Tide. This time, it appears Richt honed in on Pruitt from the beginning.
Pruitt is likely to coach Georgia’s secondary, so that also fills a position coaching vacancy. Georgia’s previous secondary coach, Scott Lakatos, resigned last week for personal reasons.
The future of Georgia’s two remaining defensive assistants, defensive line coach Chris Wilson and inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, is up in the air. There have been indications that each will stay on staff, as each of their units had good seasons in 2013. Wilson has been in Indianapolis the past two days at the national coaches convention. Olivadotti has remained in Athens.
If Wilson and Olivadotti stay on, then Pruitt will have to hire just one more assistant coach for the defensive side.
Pruitt was at Alabama from 2007-12, the first three in an off-field role and the next three guiding the secondary.
“He did a fantastic job here for us, regardless of what his role was,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said of Pruitt last month. “Did a great job of coaching our secondary. I certainly felt like because he had been a coordinator in high school, he had a really good, sort of, big-picture view of things, that he would make a really, really good coordinator.”
In Pruitt’s three years at Alabama, the Crimson Tide ranked in the top 15 nationally each year in passing yards allowed. In his one year at Florida State, the Seminoles ranked third in yards allowed and first in passing yards allowed.
Georgia’s pass defense was its weak point this year and arguably the weak point of the entire team. The Bulldogs were 60th nationally this year in passing yards allowed.
Pruitt was called a “star” and a “home run” hire by ESPN analyst David Pollack, the former Georgia All-America defensive end.
“He’s got a very cool demeanor,” Pollack said. “First year coming into a new system you’d think you’d have some growing pains, but the thing that impressed me the most with his team throughout the season was his versatility and the way he used different guys and really adapted to his personnel. I think that’s one thing that’s not talked about enough in college football, when you talk about great defenses this, great defenses that. I think great coaches put their players in the best position to succeed.”
For instance, Pruitt moved LaMarcus Joyner and Christian Jones to different positions last offseason, and they became key parts of the defense. That could prove important as he takes over Georgia’s defense.
Pruitt will now inherit 10 starters and a number of other players who started or contributed this season. But many of the players struggled this past season, and while Pruitt is still likely to run the 3-4 scheme, he will take a fresh look at the roster and whether players could be better suited at other positions or in different packages.
“When I look at the University of Georgia’s defensive personnel, there’s a lot to like,” Pollack said. “I think he’s got two better pass rushers (Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd) on this roster than he had at Florida State, period. Now (Tim) Jernigan on the inside was a beast to me, I think he’s a great player. But you look at Jenkins and Floyd, both of those guys have star potential. ...
“When you look at Georgia’s defense, I don’t think they played hard enough, to be honest. Effort has to be coached in college. You’ve gotta have some dogs, you know? You’ve gotta play your booty off and play hard. I don’t think they played hard enough, for one, and too many busts, missed assignments, blown coverages, whatever you want to call it. It was just kind of unacceptable.”
What’s more, Richt has now turned to a Saban disciple for a second defensive coordinator in a row. Grantham, who bolted for Louisville after four years in Athens, worked under Saban in the 1990s. And by hiring Pruitt, Georgia can stick with the 3-4 base defense.
Pruitt was a finalist this year for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant. Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was a finalist after the 2012 season.
Pruitt’s father, Dale Pruitt, is a longtime high school coach in Alabama and is the head coach at Plainview (Ala.) High School, where his son starred as a defensive back. Pruitt started his college career at Middle Tennessee State, then transferred to Alabama, where he played under Gene Stallings and roomed with Friend.