Jeremy Pruitt gave Tennessee fans a hint of his defensive ideals at his introductory press conference on Dec. 7, but on Saturday he expounded more.
Just what are the hallmarks of a Nick Saban-Kirby Smart-Jeremy Pruitt defense, the Vols coach was asked at the College Football Playoff media day at Philips Arena in Atlanta.
“I think you’ve got to be good up the middle,” Pruitt said. “You’ve got to have good guys up front, you need to have good inside linebackers, you need to have good safety play, and you kinda work yourself from the inside out.”
The Crimson Tide face SEC champion Georgia at 8 p.m. ET on Monday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in the CFP National Championship Game.
Pritt was hired as Tennessee’s coach on Dec. 7 and put together a top 25 class by Dec. 20, but he said that’s only the beginning, hinting at an explosive finish on February’s National Signing Day.
The past two weeks, however, the 43-year-old Pruitt has focused on giving his best to the Crimson Tide in their quest to win a national title.
It’s hard not to contrast Pruitt’s current defense, which smothered Clemson 24-6 in the CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl last Monday, to the current state of the Vols.
Pruitt’s description of his Alabama defense runs counter to what Tennessee’s defense has had going on the past two seasons, in large part due to injuries. The Vols lost five of their top six defensive tackles to injuries in 2016, derailing a top 10 ranking en route to a 9-4 campaign.
Last season, All-SEC middle linebacker candidate Darrin Kirkland Jr. was lost in the preseason with an injury, interior line play was subpar and safeties had breakdowns, missed tackles and missed interceptions in losses to Florida, Kentucky and Missouri.
Tennessee’s front seven was overwhelmed physically in matchups with Alabama and Georgia, leading to the Tide and Bulldogs being able to run balanced offenses.
That doesn’t fit into Pruitt’s game plan.
“The first thing we’re going to talk about is being able to stop the run. If you can stop the run you have a chance to have success,” Pruitt said. “You want to eliminate explosive plays, make the other team earn it, you’ve got to find a way to create turnovers, you’ve got to be good on third down, and when people get in the red area you have to force them to kick field goals.
“I think that’s the key to any defense, but that’s the things we talk about here and they probably talk about over there [at Georgia].”
Tennessee will have its work cut out for it next season after Rashaan Gaulden’s decision to forgo his senior season.
Gaulden was the Vols’ best defensive player last season, and Tennessee also loses both starting cornerbacks and its most reliable defensive lineman (Kendal Vickers).
Pruitt hasn’t made many assessments about the Vols because of his focus on the game Monday night.
But the basis for what Tennessee will look like has been set.
“You better play with toughness, you better play with effort,” Pruitt said, “and you’ve got to have a physical team.”
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