NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- If you’re a head coach, you may want to do everything you can to pry Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State. The guy is as close to a lock as there is in the coaching profession.
He’ll be coaching in the BCS National Championship Game for the fourth time in the past five years when the Seminoles take on Auburn on Monday night.
Pruitt had some big shoes to fill this year as FSU’s new defensive coordinator.He had a big reputation, though. Three years coaching Alabama’s secondary will do that. But he was taking over for Mark Stoops, who left to take the Kentucky job. All Stoops had done was turn the Seminoles back into one of the most feared defensive units in the country. Like the ones back in the late 90s. FSU finished second in the nation in total defense in 2012.
Pruitt’s job? Make them even better.
He’s also just the third defensive coordinator in the past 28 years to coach the Seminoles thanks to Mickey Andrews’ long tenure under Bobby Bowden.
So there had to be a learning curve, right? Especially since he was bringing in a new system -- yeah, that’s right -- a new system to a group that finished tops in the country.
“Everybody talks about how we tweaked the defense,” Pruitt said. “[Head coach Jimbo Fisher] laid out exactly what he wanted for us as far as the tweaks. This is Jimbo's philosophy and what we're trying to get done. He brought me in, and there's a reason, because of the background, and he was familiar with the background. He laid the foundation. He said, [these are] the players we've got. This is what I want to do. This is how I want to get it done.”
Whatever tweaks he made, they’ve worked.
His defense is among the nation’s best once again in a host of categories including second in points allowed and first in pass defense. His secondary is one of the most feared in the country, full of ballhawks who lead the nation in interceptions. They all bought in to Pruitt.
“I can't take my hat off enough to Coach Pruitt,” cornerback LaMarcus Joyner said. “He got my attention when he first came back in January just with the kind of heart he has. He said something to me that I'll never forget in my life. He said, ‘You don't get what you want, you get what you earn.’ I never heard that said before. He got my attention from day one, and to just see the way he loves football, the way he loves coaching and developing young men, it's no better feeling.”
Pruitt talked their language from day one, and for linebacker Telvin Smith that language is "country."
“He's from the country, he talked country. I'm from the country, so all the country came in together,” Smith said. “It just all worked. We believed when he came in; we just listened to him, let him coach us. We didn't worry about the coaches that were here before him even though we've got much respect and love for them.”
His rise through the football coaching ranks has been deemed by some as meteoric. Just a few years ago, he was coaching defense at Hoover High School in Alabama and appearing on the television show Two-A-Days.
Then it was off to Tuscaloosa where he had finished his playing career after starting at Middle Tennessee. He was the director of player development and earned a reputation under Nick Saban as one of his best recruiters.
It was a job he couldn’t refuse.
“I just wanted to be a part of an organization,” Pruitt said. “I wanted to go work for coach Saban. I wanted to be one of coach Saban's guys, for a guy that was a high school coach. It's been eight years -- I'm lining off fields, I'm washing practice uniforms, I'm going to pick guys up -- I never dreamed of being here today.”
Pruitt’s reward is to try and stop one of the most potent rushing attacks in the country with Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason. One that rushed its way to a SEC championship in early December.
It’ll be one of the most prolific offenses the Seminoles have seen this season. But they’ve shut down high-powered units already. Just go ask Clemson or Miami (Fla.) as each came into its game against Pruitt’s defense flying high, only to be completely shut down.
He’s also had a month to prepare for these Tigers.
“It's kind of been a work in progress for them,” Pruitt said of Auburn. “Obviously the quarterback doesn't get there until August, doesn't go through spring ball, so they've kind of developed who they are over the course of the year. They've done an outstanding job over the course of the year. They've been really stubborn about it. They're going to run the football. Everybody knows they're going to run the football, and you've got to be able to stop them.”
One of Auburn’s most recent opponents was Alabama, so it was only natural that the Tigers would come up in conversation with Pruitt’s friend, Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
“Kirby kind of took the stance of me and you are friends, but they've still got the old SEC going in them now,” Pruitt said. “There is some pride there.”
Smart wouldn’t tell him much, but maybe that’s a good thing considering what the Tigers did to the Crimson Tide. Pruitt will just have to figure them out for himself.