ATHENS, Ga. - Saturday's showdown between No. 12 Georgia and No. 16 Clemson will be the 172nd football game for Mark Richt as coach of the Bulldogs.
It will be the first for Jeremy Pruitt as Georgia's defensive coordinator.
Pruitt became the biggest splash hire of the 14-year Richt era in January when the Bulldogs were able to lure him from Florida State, which was fresh off the 2013 national championship. He inherited a Georgia defense that allowed a program-record 29 points a game last season and quickly tried to simplify matters for a unit that looked confused right through the Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska.
"He's driven to have a great defense, and over time he'll do a phenomenal job," Richt said this week. "I don't know what's going to happen in game one with a lot of moving parts and even the veterans learning his system. There is a high learning curve with this bunch and some inexperience in the back end.
"No one likes inexperience in the back end, but Jeremy and the rest of this defensive staff are outstanding."
The hiring of Pruitt and defensive assistants Mike Ekeler, Tracy Rocker and Kevin Sherrer represented the first complete coaching overhaul on that side of the ball since 1964, when Vince Dooley brought in his first staff. There will be no easing into their positions Saturday, as Clemson may have lost quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins but returns offensive coordinator Chad Morris, the highest-paid assistant coach in college athletics.
Pruitt has declined interview requests the past two weeks and provided intrigue Monday when his depth chart had sophomore Tim Kimbrough as the starting middle linebacker. That left the second-team spot to Ramik Wilson, who led the Southeastern Conference with 133 tackles last season but missed more than a week of preseason camp with a concussion.
Richt said not to make too much out of the depth chart, but it's hard not to make too much out of the curiosity surrounding Pruitt's debut.
"With Coach Pruitt coming in, he has something to prove," junior defensive end Sterling Bailey said. "We have something to prove after losing last year's game. This is huge for us, but we can't let all the hype get to us. We still have to go into the game focused on getting the job done."
Georgia lost last season's opener 38-35 at Clemson, but Pruitt helped Florida State to a 51-14 thrashing of the Tigers in Death Valley. The Seminoles led 51-7 until the Tigers scored their second touchdown with 13 seconds remaining.
Pruitt has been on three consecutive national championship staffs, having coached Alabama's secondary in 2011 and '12, but it's his familiarity with Saturday's foe that has his players just as excited.
"We've been running his scheme the last couple of weeks, and it's been working in practice," Bailey said. "I'm looking forward to putting it to use against Clemson."
Though preparation the last several days has centered on Clemson, all the work in recent months has been about Georgia. Players have discussed an improved overall focus as well as better communication in the secondary, and they appreciate that Pruitt rarely, if ever, mentions Florida State and repeatedly says, "I'm Georgia now."
Whether Pruitt's impact on Georgia's defense is immediate or not, it's a storyline SEC fans will be following closely.
"I think we will look a lot different," senior inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. "We're going to play harder. We're going to hustle, and everybody is going to be on the same page this year. We didn't play hard all the time last year. We've watched all the film, and we may have thought we played hard, but it wasn't the standard that it is right now."
Said senior cornerback Damian Swann: "Coach Pruitt's resume speaks for itself. He's a winner, and he knows what winning feels like. Guys on this team want to accomplish what he has accomplished, so they are buying in to what he has to say."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.