What a difference a day and a half can make.
Mark Richt entered the offseason presiding over a program that had failed to live up to its early-season promise, stumbling to an 8-5 record in part because of an inexperienced defense that didn’t seem to get any better as the season progressed. Despite strong sentiment among fans and boosters for a shakeup on the defensive staff, Richt said he didn’t anticipate any changes, touting the benefits of “continuity” — an idea that didn’t exactly sit well with much of the Bulldog Nation.
Then, suddenly, Richt’s program didn’t even have continuity, as two of Georgia’s more embattled assistants left. First, defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos quit for “personal” reasons, and then defensive coordinator Todd Grantham jumped ship Sunday to join Bobby Petrino at Louisville. With the dead time in college football recruiting about to end, the Dogs needed a Hail Mary.
Which Richt delivered Tuesday, stunning much of the college football world when he swooped down on his former employer in Tallahassee and stole defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt from the newly crowned national champion Seminoles in what Yahoo Sports called “the biggest hiring coup of the season.”
As a friend put it Tuesday afternoon once UGA had confirmed the hire first reported by the AJC’s Chip Towers, Petrino actually may have done Richt a big favor. Despite two straight years of disappointing results under Grantham, Richt obviously wasn’t going to make a change. Then Petrino forced his hand.
The landing of Pruitt — widely declared a “home run” for Richt by the nation’s sports media — looks to be an upgrade for the Bulldogs’ program in multiple ways.
Pruitt, a Nick Saban disciple who has coached on three straight national championship teams at Alabama and FSU and was a finalist this year for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, spent three years guiding highly ranked Crimson Tide secondaries and also coached defensive backs in his year as defensive coordinator at Florida State.
The presumption is that he’ll do the same in Athens, where Lakatos’ players finished the 2013 season looking no better than when they started four months earlier. The Noles, on the other hand, finished the season ranked second nationally in team passing defense.
Plus, the hire fits well with Georgia’s recruiting over the past few seasons, as Pruitt also used a 3-4 as his “base” defense at FSU, though he presented offenses with multiple looks that sometimes had as many as six men on the line.
After being hired by Jimbo Fisher a year ago to replace Mark Stoops, now the head coach at Kentucky, Pruitt restructured the Noles’ defense, going with a much more aggressive approach that allowed Florida State to go from minus 6 in turnover margin the previous year to plus 17, with 25 interceptions — another area in which Georgia lagged under Grantham. In each of Pruitt’s three seasons as Bama’s secondary coach, the Crimson Tide ranked in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, top 15 in pass defense and top five in both total defense and scoring defense.
Also, while at FSU Pruitt was a big proponent of players learning two or more positions to deal with the various spread-style offenses played nowadays by so many teams in the college game, and he wasn’t afraid to move some defenders around — something we could see repeated in Athens.
Under Pruitt, the undefeated Seminoles defense ended the season ranked first in the nation in scoring defense (12.1 points per game), third in total defense (281.4 yards per game) and 18th in rushing defense (124.8 ypg). Under Grantham in 2013, the Bulldogs were tied for 78th in scoring defense, 45th in total defense and 109th in turnovers gained.
No wonder Richt described himself as “ecstatic” about hiring Pruitt.
On top of that, while Grantham’s reputation as a recruiter was somewhat mixed, Pruitt is considered one of the best young recruiters in the business and is expected to hit the ground running in pursuit of top-flight talent for UGA. Pruitt was raised in Alabama by a high school football coach father and honed his recruiting chops at Bama. After being hired at FSU, he immediately helped the Noles land several key late additions to their 2013 signing class — including Nate Andrews, who went on to lead the team in interceptions — and was named the National Recruiter of the Year by 247Sports. He won the same honor a year earlier while still on Saban’s staff.
Take that, Rodney Garner!
Any caveats? Well, the 39-year-old former Bama player (who roomed in college with UGA assistant Will Friend) has only spent four years coaching at the college level (plus three years before that as one of Saban’s off-field player development staffers) and isn’t that far removed from the high school coaching ranks — though, then again, neither is Auburn’s Gus Malzahn! And Pruitt has only been a defensive coordinator for one season and inherited a wealth of talent at FSU.
Then there are the concerns of some in the self-loathing corner of the Bulldog Nation, who figure that, if Pruitt was really any good, ole Jimbo wouldn’t have allowed Richt to steal him.
The reality is that Fisher couldn’t really afford to get into a bidding war with Richt. Pruitt had a base salary at FSU of $540,000 and, according to ESPN, will make about the same at UGA as Grantham did — $850,000 per year. In order to match that, Fisher would have had to use up nearly $300,000 of the roughly $490,000 in raises he’s been given to disperse among his staff, according to various Florida press reports, which wouldn’t have gone over big in the staff room in Tallahassee.
Of course, whether Pruitt can light a fire under UGA’s frequently late-to-the-play and out-of-position defense and have the same sort of success in Athens that he had in Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee remains to be seen. There are no sure things in college football.
But any way you look at it, on paper the hiring of Pruitt seems brimming over with promise. And there’s no denying that when it comes to generating buzz for his program, Richt’s blitzkrieg scoop of luring away the defensive coordinator from the reigning national champs beats the heck out the protracted search that brought a fourth-choice NFL position coach to Athens four years ago.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg