ATHENS, Ga. -- For all the plaudits on his recent resume, Jeremy Pruitt did not saunter into town declaring himself the savior of Georgia football. Or even the defense.
“I don’t know much about last year,” Pruitt said of a year in which he guided one of the nation’s best defenses at Florida State, while Georgia struggled. “But I do know this. The (Georgia) defense two years ago, because I was at Alabama, was pretty darn good. I mean we played them in the SEC championship game, and they were one play away from beating us.
“But there were a lot of good players on that team, a lot of leadership guys on that team that are obviously all now playing in the NFL. So there were a lot of new faces last year. You know, when you have a team like what was here in 2012, there are going to be a lot of growing pains the next year. And there were some.”
When it ended, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham jumped at the chance to leave for Louisville, and two days later Pruitt jumped at the chance to replace him. After more than two months of evaluating his new defense on film and during mat drills, Pruitt’s discovery process on the field begins Tuesday, as spring practice begins.
There will be plenty of other story lines percolating the next month: the quarterbacks, the offensive line, the revamped special teams.
But most eyes will be on Pruitt and the other three new defensive assistants. For the first time since Vince Dooley’s first year as head coach in 1964, Georgia’s defensive coaching staff has been entirely overhauled.
“It’s gonna be a little bit of a change, but it’s gonna be a good change,” said defensive end Ray Drew, who will be a senior this season.
Drew pointed out that Pruitt won four of the past five national championships, first at Alabama and then Florida State. The one year Pruitt didn’t win it was 2010, when Auburn won it, and its defensive line coach was Tracy Rocker, who also was recently hired at Georgia.
“They have a lot of experience here and know what it takes to get there,” Drew said.
But just showing off rings won’t be quite enough to turn around a unit that looked lost for much of last year. Pruitt knows that, and the players do, too. Now it’s time to evaluate players and implement schematic changes.
There are starters returning at nearly every spot. Defensive end Garrison Smith was the only senior who started more than two games last year. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, the team’s third-leading tackler, was dismissed from the team.
“I think the competition level is gonna be high this spring, just because guys are trying to prove themselves to the new staff,” said cornerback Damian Swann, who will be a senior.
“My guess is that their main thought right now is that they’re just trying to win a job. ‘What do I have to do to prove to coach that I can win this job?’ ” head coach Mark Richt said. “Guys want to play, and guys want to start. Guys want to play football and win championships, so I think that’s their main thought.”
But what also bears watching is what schematic and philosophical changes start to emerge. Pruitt has emphasized that he’s a 3-4 coach and comes from the same Nick Saban coaching tree as Grantham.
But Pruitt also has hinted strongly at simplifying the playbook and making some subtle changes, like using a dime package more and subbing more liberally than Grantham did. Grantham’s NFL background got him used to using a smaller roster and thus a smaller rotation. Pruitt’s background is in college and high school.
Asked if the scheme was too complicated for last year’s defense, Swann said it depended on the player.
“There’s no reason to make it so hard when you can run simple plays and get off the field,” Swann said. “Once we get acclimated to the system and get everyone playing, I think we have a chance to be one of the best in the country.”
Georgia is scheduled to hold 12 team practices leading up to the G-Day game on April 12. The team will then hold two more practices the following week, as it did last year.