TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Some of this will sound familiar, and with good reason.
Nick Saban knew he had a good coaching staff that was helping land top-notch recruits and establish the program as a national power for years to come. But he had seen numerous assistants come and go, including three in three years for the defensive backs, and he wanted to hire someone young and aggressive who he could groom for the long haul.
Now take a moment and guess who that statement pertains to: Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt or former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
If you hesitated, that’s the point.
Pruitt’s ascension in the college football coaching ranks has a lot of parallels to his predecessor, who now has Georgia at No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and on a possible collision course with No. 2 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. A Georgia win against Auburn combined with a Crimson Tide win at Mississippi State on Saturday will clinch the highly-anticipated matchup.
With the coaching carousel looking like it might go nuclear this offseason due to so many supposedly being on the hot seat across the SEC and nation, it’s not going to be long before someone looks at Smart and wonders if Pruitt might be capable of similar success.
Smart, who became the protégé previously described, worked for Saban at LSU and a year with the Miami Dolphins (2006), but also at Florida State (2002-03) and Georgia (2005). He followed Saban to Alabama in 2007 to oversee the defensive backs and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2008.
Along the way he developed a reputation as being a top-notch coach and recruiter, while winning two prominent honors, the 2009 Frank Broyles Award and the 2012 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year.
Pruitt joined the Alabama staff as director of player development in 2007 after a successful stint as an assistant coach at Hoover (Ala.) High School. He was promoted to defensive backs coach in 2010. He also did stints at Florida State (2013) and Georgia (2014-15), although as their defensive coordinator.
When Smart was hired to replace Mark Richt in December 2015, it was almost as if the two schools pulled of a trade, with Pruitt returning to the Capstone in what appeared to be a seamless transition.
Statistically, Alabama has more than maintained its high standards.
Alabama defense national rankings
|2017*||1 (245.3 yards)||1 (9.8 points)||2 (75.8 yards)||1 (97.80 rating)|
|2016||2 (267.7)||1 (13.0)||1 (63.9)||9 (106.47)|
|2015||1 (266.2)||3 (15.1)||1 (75.7)||8 (105.22)|
|2014||13 (337.0)||6 (18.4)||6 (18.4)||6 (18.4)|
|2013||5 (295.8)||4 (13.9||7 (106.2)||26 (116.84)|
|2012||1 (252.9)||1 (10.93)||1 (76.36)||6 (103.72)|
|2011||1 (177.6)||1 (8.15)||1 (72.15)||1 (83.69)|
|2010||5 (298.0)||T-3 (13.54)||10 (110.15)||6 (103.54)|
|2009||4 (256.6)||2 (11.71)||2 (78.14)||2 (87.67)|
|2008||3 (263.8)||7 (14.29)||2 (74.14)||14 (106.68)|
Even though Alabama lost seven defensive players in the 2017 NFL Draft, and this year’s squad has sustained numerous injuries, Pruitt has the Crimson Tide challenging Smart’s remarkable achievement of coaching the only defense outside of Oklahoma in 1986 that led the nation in the four key statistical categories — total, scoring, rushing and pass-efficiency defense.
It should be noted, though, that in 2015 the Crimson Tide defense faced nine ranked opponents, while this year’s team has seen only two so far. It’ll play seven should it reach the National Championship Game.
“I think statistically, we were better in a lot of categories than even the year before,” Saban said at the start of the season about Pruitt’s first year back. “Granted we had a lot of good players, but he got the good players to play well and I think that’s the key. I think that the fact that we have all the coaches on defense, the continuity on defense, the understanding, how we coach things, how we do things, it’s probably a benefit.”
Saban used to say that he and Smart were so much on the same page that he often would only have to think something and Kirby would already be doing it. Judging by how Pruitt laid into the defense after giving up a field goal to Fresno State, before the head coach could, they may be developing a similar connection.
“He gets after us every day,” Alabama junior defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne said. “I don’t mind that — it’s just him coaching.”
Sooner or later Pruitt will follow Smart again, this time becoming a first-time head coach. Unless something significant changes, it’s just a matter of when and where, plus opportunity.
Smart had the luxury, and financial stability — his final raise bumped him up to $1.5 million a year at Alabama — to be patient and wait for the right job to come alone. He turned down the Georgia defensive coordinator job in 2010, was in the mix at Southern Miss in 2011, and interviewed with Auburn in 2012 when Gus Malzahn was hired.
When his alma mater called again, Smart was only 39.
Pruitt, 43, has a base salary of $1.3 million this season, which will increase $100,000 each of the next two years. Co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi, another fast-rising assistant, is making $950,000.
No former Saban assistant has defeated him, but Jimbo Fisher won a national championship at Florida State and Mark Dantonio made the playoff at Michigan State. With Smart already on the doorstep, it can only help Pruitt’s prospects.