Jeremy Pruitt's defense is facing a new challenge, and how it's handled will be telling
At this point, Jeremy Pruitt has dealt with a variety of challenges during his meteoric rise in the coaching profession.
That’s how a guy goes from being a high school defensive coordinator to a big-time Power 5 head coach in a little more than a decade’s time. At every stop, Pruitt showed his ability to recruit 5-star talent, develop a defense and help it become one of the nation’s best. Florida State, Georgia, Alabama and now Tennessee were all better for having Pruitt run their respective defenses.
Whether it was game-planning in a new conference, dealing with losing a handful of players to the NFL or simply having sky-high expectations on the staff of the greatest college coach of all-time, Pruitt took every challenge head-on.
But the challenge staring him down in 2020 is unlike any he’s faced.
No, that’s not in reference to this unprecedented, pandemic-fueled offseason, though it probably hasn’t helped Pruitt deal with the obstacle standing in his way of producing another elite defense. It wasn’t just losing Darrell Taylor, who led the Vols in sacks each of the past 2 years and proved to be one of the most valuable players left from the Butch Jones era (replacing Taylor is still a major priority).
It’s dealing with the defensive staff turnover. In case you missed it, there was a lot of that in Knoxville this offseason:
Tennessee’s defense was the strength of the team to close out 2019.
The only Vol assistant on that side of the ball that returns to the same position in 2020 is DC Derrick Ansley.
It’s Jeremy Pruitt’s defense but it will be interesting to see how staff turnover affects defense.
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) February 10, 2020
As Pruitt knows as well as anyone having been in that position before, a good defense usually means promotions for a defensive staff. There’s a reason programs like Alabama and Ohio State always seem to have such high staff turnover. The Vols’ defense allowed just 15.5 points per game (and 7.2 points per 2nd half) during that 6-game winning streak to end the season.
As a result, here’s who Tennessee’s defensive staff lost at season’s end:
Now one might look at that and go, wait, that’s not that bad. That’s 3 assistants. Pruitt and Ansley run the defense, and from a recruiting standpoint, tight ends coach Brian Niedermeyer is one of the best in the business and he’s still on staff.
Here’s the thing, though. All 3 of those guys were part of Pruitt’s first staff, and all of them had worked with him at previous stops. Shrerrer had actually worked with Pruitt at Hoover High School (Ala.), Alabama and Georgia before he became the first defensive coordinator of the Pruitt era.
In total, 7 of Pruitt’s 10 assistants from his first Tennessee staff in 2018 are gone, including all of his original defensive coaches. That’s a major shift for just 2 years. And for someone like Pruitt who needed players to trust his process and buy in (pardon the clichés), that creates some uncertainty for 2020.
The good news is that Pruitt clearly had a plan. Within an hour of the announcement that Rocker left for South Carolina, Pruitt hired Jimmy Brumbaugh from Colorado to fill the opening at defensive line coach while adding the co-defensive coordinator title. Pruitt didn’t even interview anyone for the position. Soon thereafter, Shelton Felton was hired as the new linebackers coach after he served as an analyst on Pruitt’s staff in 2018. And Niedermeyer was moved to the other side of the ball to coach the inside linebackers.
That’s not without risk. Felton is entering his first year as a Power 5 on-field defensive assistant, as is Niedermeyer (he was the tight ends coach). Brumbaugh has experience having been a Power 5 defensive line coach 9 of the past 10 seasons on staffs with top defensive minds like Mark Stoops and Mel Tucker. But he hasn’t been part of a top 60 FBS defense since he was at Syracuse in 2010.
Does that mean Pruitt’s defense is destined to take a step back? Not necessarily. After all, there are still plenty of the same guys who helped Tennessee jump 48 spots in the FBS scoring defense rankings.
Leading tackler Henry To’o To’o has the makings of a future first-team All-SEC linebacker while multi-year starting cornerbacks Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor have shown plenty of promise. Tennessee returns 69% of its defensive production, which ranks No. 6 in the SEC. The fact that Pruitt signed 14 defensive players rated 4-stars or better in the 2019 and 2020 classes suggests that there are breakout candidates galore (that doesn’t include former Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon).
In Pruitt’s ideal world, the 2020 defense won’t have to deal with the same midseason transformation that the 2019 defense did. That is, figure out how to stop the bleeding or else watch the future get all sorts of uncertain for Pruitt and Co. Last year’s group was set up well to get through that. It had minimal year-to-year defensive staff turnover and it was No. 25 in FBS in percentage of returning defensive production with veterans like Taylor, Daniel Bituli and Nigel Warrior.
This year, the expectation is that Pruitt finds a way to avoid his first step back as a head coach. Nobody will let Pruitt off easy because of his defensive staff turnover or the fact that the schedule features 4 games against likely preseason top-10 teams.
The best coaches take staff turnover in stride. There’s a reason those of us in college football media tend to wait on declaring head coaches like Pruitt among the best in the conference even if the early returns are positive. We need to see how they handle situations like the one he’s faced with this year.
And if Pruitt can shake that off in an offseason unlike any other, well, his meteoric rise will be right on schedule.