Chances are if you spot Jeremy Pruitt around the University of Alabama complex or on the practice fields you’ll find him in a gray pair of Nike sweatpants with a matching sweatshirt or a pullover.
Truth is, Pruitt is a man who is much more comfortable in sweat pants than he is in a suit. A man who is much more comfortable in a recruit’s living room than he is in a banquet hall.
He’s not much for putting on airs. He is who is he. And who he is is a high school football coach’s son from Sand Mountain, Alabama who loves football. All he ever wanted to do was play or coach football.
Currently Pruitt is coordinating the Crimson Tide’s defense, adequately filling the shoes of Kirby Smart, who left the position he’d held for eight seasons to take the head coaching job at Georgia. Pruitt is the third defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama.
It’s just his fourth season as a defensive coordinator after a rapid ascension in the coaching profession that saw him hired away from Hoover High School as the defensive coordinator to Alabama in 2007 to be a director of player development. From there he was promoted to defensive backs coach (2010-12) before Florida State hired him away to be its defensive coordinator in 2013. After winning a national championship in his one and only season with the Seminoles, Georgia hired him to be its defensive coordinator, a job he served for two years before replacing Smart in Tuscaloosa.
It’s a question Pruitt gets a lot. “How did you go from a high school coach to a college coach so quickly?”
The answer takes many forms but one of the best is that he just produces.
Pruitt took over for Mark Stoops at Florida State and the defense didn’t miss a beat (the Seminoles were ranked No. 2 and 3 in total defense from 2012-13). After he left, FSU dropped to No. 63.
Before arriving in Athens, Ga., the Bulldogs ranked No. 45 in total defense. In his first year he improved that to No. 17 and a year later it was seventh. This season the Bulldogs currently rank No. 58.
Of course not all of the credit belongs to Pruitt. He’ll be the first to tell you that the players have a lot to do with it. But the point remains, when Pruitt has the players who play his style, the results follow.
Through five games of the season, the Alabama defense has allowed five touchdowns. That same defense has also scored five touchdowns. UA’s ability to create turnovers and directly turn them into points fits with Pruitt’s love of quick-twitch defensive players. Gone are the days when Alabama had lumbering linebackers and big safeties. To combat the hurry-up, no-huddle spread teams that have populated college football recently, Pruitt likes defensive players to have length and explosive, change-of-direction speed and athleticism.
The adjustment to defending the hurry-up teams came a little quicker for Pruitt because he came of age as a high school coach, where that style of offense was around long before it became popular in the college game.
“Jeremy’s beginning was at Plainview High School and at Hoover defending these offenses, which they’ve been doing in high school football for over a decade,” Pruitt’s long-time friend Freddie Kitchens said. “I don’t know if he’s evolved as much as it is he has more experience to draw from.
“There’s really not much from a standpoint of defending those type offenses that he probably hasn’t seen. Sometimes you have to do a little different techniques of how you play things to make it translate into your system, but at the end of the day he’s probably had more experience doing it. I don’t know if it’s necessarily evolving or drawing on that experience.”
He coached at Hoover for three years and went up against Rush Propst’s offense every day in practice, an offense that had three different formations named for speed.
“When I hired Jeremy in 2004, we’d been in the no-huddle for five or six years by then,” Propst said. “The tempo that we ran in those days, we phrased the term ‘NASCAR.’ NASCAR for us meant two-back, speed. If we said NASCAR it meant we were in two back as fast as we could snap it. If we said the word ‘Indy’ it meant one back. If we said the word ‘Derby’ that gave us another type of formation.
“Even with the knowledge that Jeremy has, it’s still difficult to defend. Obviously Ole Miss has had a lot of success scoring against Alabama. The no huddle is very, very difficult. You have to approach it completely different than conventional offenses because you have to limit your call sheets, you have to limit what you do. Jeremy’s been ahead of the curve for quite some time in that regard.”
Being ahead of the curve often means making it simpler for his players. When he coached high school he made receiving and relaying signals easier. Instead of a jumbled string of multi-syllable words that took time to communicate, he simplified it for his players.
At Florida State, he sometimes let his players name some of the calls. Keep it as easy as possible was often the name of the game for Pruitt, and he began mastering that as a high school coach.
“I think part of it is that not everyone who plays high school football has made an 18 on his ACT,” Pruitt’s father Dale Pruitt said. “So sometimes you’ve got to simplify it a little bit. I think that has helped him a little bit as far as calls.
“Instead of having eight- or 10-word calls, he makes it so they remember it better. I think that’s a lot to do with it. Ninety percent of the time against the no-huddle folks the struggle is in getting the call in. If you get the call in then they’re fine. But if you have to make four, five, six or seven words it’s hard to get that into the guy on the other side before they snap the ball.”
Pruitt also excels on the recruiting trail. It may seem odd that a country boy from Sand Mountain thrives at recruiting, especially considering many of his targets are African-Americans, but it is precisely because of Pruitt’s style that makes him so successful.
In the business of sales, which is what recruiting boils down to, Pruitt is a top producer.
He reeled in T.J. Yeldon even after the former UA running back had verbally committed to cross-state foe Auburn. He also snagged Yeldon’s teammate, Ryan Anderson, who has 9.5 sacks over the last two seasons. When he accepted the FSU job he took DeMarcus Walker with him. Walker currently leads the Seminoles with 6.5 sacks this season.
Those close to him say he has an ability to close gaps, that he endears himself to others easily.
What’s his secret? He’s honest. No, seriously. That’s the quality that everyone around him said makes him stand out in a game of over-the-top sales pitches.
“At the end of the day, people sometimes don’t want to hear the truth, but they always respect the truth,” Kitchens said. “Sometimes on the recruiting trail you wait for somebody else to mess it up. If you’ve been honest and you’ve been there from the get go…a lot of times people don’t want to hear the truth, and if you’re truthful with them they know that you’re truthful with him. They may not want to hear it.
“When other people mess it up, he’s right there to be the go-to guy.”
It’s a quality he learned growing up the son of a high school coach. He understands the struggles of athletes living in households that go paycheck to paycheck. It’s not a forced empathy, rather an experienced reality.
“I think he’s genuine,” Dale Pruitt said. “They know when he tells them something that they know it’s true. He was raised as a coach’s son so he’s never been around a whole lot of money or anything like that. He understands the whole nine yards with kids. He is who he is and he doesn’t try to be anybody different. That’s really helped him in the long run.”
That characteristic of being honest sounds simple enough. But in the cutthroat world of college football recruiting it can stand out like a light in the darkness.
“I said from day one about Jeremy is I thought he was one of the best recruiters in the country,” Propst said. “I still believe that. First of all, he’s as honest as the day is long. Kids see him as a very truthful person. They trust him. He develops a trust with kids very very quick. His dad’s that way.
“There’s a very select handful of coaches who can really rip into a player and can chew one out as good as anybody I’ve ever seen and then flip the page and within two minutes he can make that same kid he just ripped feel like he is on top of the world. He has that uncanny ability. I think coaching is more about that than Xs and Os. Jeremy has recognized that for a long time. That’s what’s made him such a great recruiter. That’s why the players respond to him. He’s very well liked but they also fear him too now.
“I can name five people in my 36 years of doing this who have that kind of ability and he’s one of those. Immediately he gains your trust. He’s not afraid to tell a kid not exactly what most recruiters will tell them. I’ve seen every sales pitch. I think kids can see through that. Jeremy is one of those guys who is very good at what he does because he’s not afraid to tell them exactly maybe not what they always want to hear.”
Pruitt never forgot where he came from. He still goes by the old barber shop when he’s back home. He still goes up to the local nine-hole golf course and chats with the old men. And he still keeps in very close contact with two of his best friends from his college days at the University of Alabama — Freddie Kitchens and Will Friend.
They all remain close because of the game they all grew up playing, a game they all still love and a game that keeps them all employed.
“Football is important to all of us,” Friend said. “Really I don’t know what else we’d be doing if it weren’t for football. We’ve all three been fortunate. Jeremy and I got to coach together one year and actually lived across the street from each other in Athens. That was a big plus. Just proud of both of those guys.”
Kitchens currently coaches the quarterbacks for the Arizona Cardinals and Friend is the offensive coordinator at Colorado State.
Dale Pruitt remembers strolling across his living room 20 or so years ago and watching a pile of young men laid out on his couch.
“I told them they’d never amount to nothing,” Dale Pruitt said.
“Now Freddie’s an NFL coach, Will’s an offensive line coach on the college level and Jeremy’s a DC, so I reckon I was wrong.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.