Georgia's Kirby Smart recognized Jeremy Pruitt's ability before most

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart listens to a question about his No. 1 recruiting class during Wednesday afternoon's news conference in Athens.
photo First-year Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt want his players to work on building trust this summer, before the challenges of preseason practices and the season arrive.

ATLANTA - As Alabama neared the end of a 17-year national championship drought at the conclusion of the 2009 season, then-Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart called a blitz drawn up by a low-level staffer most people had never heard of.

The Crimson Tide suffocated Texas in the BCS national championship game, and at least part of the credit for the dominating performance went to Jeremy Pruitt.

Tennessee's first-year head coach, who will make his SEC Media Days debut Wednesday, held the title of director of player development at Alabama in 2009. He was drawing up defensive calls, even though that wasn't in his job description.

Smart, now the head coach at Georgia, saw Pruitt's talent then, he said Tuesday, though it would be several more years before Pruitt landed his first defensive coordinator job and began receiving national recognition.

"He was a big asset for us early on at Alabama that people didn't realize," Smart said. "I think people didn't really recognize Jeremy until he went to Florida State and did it on his own. But I recognized early."

The blitz Pruitt recommended to Smart for the showdown with Texas resulted in a sack. Alabama beat the Longhorns 37-21, effectively launching Nick Saban's dynasty as the Tide's head coach.

"The pressure we hit them with, it was some different ideas that (Pruitt) had given us that he had done before," Smart said. "I was quick to give him credit and tell him that he was responsible for one of those sacks in the game. I was just the guy that called it. He was one of the guys that helped design it and come up with it."

Smart said he looked at Pruitt as similar to himself - the son of a high school football coach who played defensive back in the Southeastern Conference before climbing through the coaching ranks and working for Saban.

"He grew up around the game," Smart said. "He learned it at an early age. He relates to players really well. He's very, very, very bright within the game tactically. He understands the game is about players. It's not just about tactics."

Tennessee fans would like for Pruitt to continue emulating Smart's career path. The third-year head coach led Georgia to the national title game last season and is attracting some of the nation's top talent to Athens.

Like Pruitt, Smart had never been a head coach when he left the defensive coordinator position at Alabama to lead an SEC East program.

That transition, Smart warned, made for a learning curve in his first year.

"Coming to SEC Media Days was uncomfortable," Smart said, recalling the build-up to his first season in 2016. "Last year I was not as uncomfortable as I was the first year. I think you grow. Everything you're doing a second time."

Saban's policies greatly restrict media access to coordinators and assistants, which left Smart to adjust on the fly to the SEC Media Days gauntlet in 2016. Pruitt will face a similar challenge Wednesday.

On the field, as Smart can attest, more challenges await Pruitt.

"The first year was tough," Smart said. "I mean, there was a lot of maneuvering for players on the team to get accustomed to my style of leadership, our style of practice, our staff.

"That's not easy, OK? That's not easy any time to have that transition. You got older players who have done it a certain way for a long time, and that's tough for them to embrace that."

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