Jeremy Pruitt has spent enough years with University of Alabama football to understand how each offseason goes.
Seven NFL draft picks from the defense walked out the door in January. Now the defensive coordinator has to find a way to replace them.
“It’s something that we had to do the year before and has been done here for a while,” he said.
It’s true; Pruitt had to replace four NFL draft picks and a handful of other key seniors before his first season as UA’s coordinator last year.
Pruitt had spent six years at Alabama as an off-field staffer and assistant coach under head coach Nick Saban before returning as defensive coordinator. The Crimson Tide defense didn’t slow down when Pruitt took over for Kirby Smart. UA’s defense led the nation in yards per game, rushing yards per game, yards per play and points per game last year.
“I think he did a fabulous job,” Saban said. “I think statistically, we were better in a lot of categories than even the year before. Granted we had a lot of good players, but he got the good players to play well, and I think that’s the key.”
The task will be the same even with a new cast of players for Pruitt this year. The Alabama defense will be expected to stonewall running backs and intimidate quarterbacks and receivers.
Alabama actually improved on its sack numbers in 2016 even after setting a school record with 52 in 2015. Pruitt’s unit had 54 last fall. That’s become a recent trademark of the Alabama defense, but the personnel this year may not allow for such a torrid pace again.
“Any time you bring more than four guys, you’re putting pressure on the back end,” Pruitt said. “To do that, you have to have guys who can stand up and play man-to-man. Obviously, that’s where the pressure’s at. We had some guys back there that have experience and we have some guys that were good blitzers. I think over the next two or three weeks we’ll kind of see how we develop as a team and see if that’s our identity or not.”
Two starters from last year’s secondary must be replaced. Players in those positions will have to show they can handle the pressure of man-on-man coverage before Pruitt can apply similar pressure up front on quarterbacks.
One possibility in the secondary will be Trevon Diggs, who spent last year working on both sides of the ball. Saban said the 6-2 sophomore will be left at cornerback to develop. He’s one of the players who will vie to replace Marlon Humphrey.
“The good thing is at wide receiver and you come over there to DB, you don’t have any bad habits,” Pruitt said. “You’re really just learning. I think Trevon’s got a good skill set.”
On other position groups, Pruitt was less definitive. The defensive line needs depth and consistency. The outside linebackers have some experienced players whose production has been limited by playing time. Junior Minkah Fitzpatrick could play either safety or cornerback as the roster’s needs dictate.
“We’ll see over the next few weeks,” Pruitt said often, capping his answers to several questions.
Saturday’s open practice was just the third day of fall camp for Alabama, and still early to have anything settled. It was also four weeks away from the opener against Florida State. Pruitt’s first job as a college defensive coordinator was with the Seminoles, but he deflected a question on that as well.
Alabama’s defense has built its reputation on consistency from play to play, game to game and year to year. Pruitt has been with the Crimson Tide long enough to know that. Alabama has found the answers to those questions before, even if Pruitt doesn’t know this year’s answers just yet.
“One thing about great defenses that is very unique is that they find the way to do the right thing over and over and over again. You watch college football, probably every team out there plays well at certain times in the game. But who can do it over and over? I think that’s one thing our guys have to prove in the course of the next couple weeks.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.