KNOXVILLE — At age 33, Jeremy Pruitt had been an assistant football coach at Alabama's Hoover High School for three years when he received a phone call from Kevin Steele, the University of Alabama's defensive coordinator at the time.
The ensuing conversation altered the course of Pruitt's career.
"He called one night and asked me if I'd be interested in talking to Coach (Nick) Saban," Pruitt said Wednesday.
That conversation led to Pruitt becoming the director of player development under Saban at Alabama, Pruitt's alma mater. It was the beginning of a career in the college coaching ranks that eventually led Pruitt to Tennessee, where he is in first season as head coach.
Pruitt and Steele will meet again Saturday when Pruitt vies for his first Southeastern Conference win as the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2) play at No. 21 Auburn (4-2, 1-2). Kickoff is at noon EDT.
Steele has turned Auburn's defense into of the nation's best in his three seasons as its coordinator. His unit was so good in 2017 that Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer considered Steele for the Vols' head coaching position before hiring Pruitt.
"We're very good friends," Pruitt, 44, said. "We kind of know each other and know the philosophies there."
Steele, 60, who played and began his coaching career at Tennessee, served as Saban's defensive coordinator for two seasons while Pruitt was on staff.
"That first year we spent a lot of nights together, me just trying to help him any way I possibly could," Pruitt said. "I was a young guy and excited about the opportunity. I was excited about the people I was working with and learned a whole lot.
"Kevin was very patient with me as a young coach and very instrumental in kind of helping me get going a little bit in my career. I'm very thankful for that opportunity."
Time with the offense
Pruitt is spending more time working with the offense during portions of practice open to media after working almost exclusively with the defensive backs during such open periods in his first several months with the Vols.
"I have confidence in (cornerbacks coach) Terry Fair, I have confidence in (safeties coach) Charles Kelly," Pruitt said. "I don't think I have to be down there. I knew when it got started to make sure it was exactly the way I wanted it."
Pruitt added he worked with offensive players when he was a high school coach.
"I think I can go coach the O-line, the quarterbacks, the wide receivers," he said. "So I want to go down there and encourage those guys a little bit."
New position for Niehaus
Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Nathan Niehaus is practicing at right guard to allow starting right guard Jerome Carvin to work some at center. Carvin, a freshman, is now the backup center after a recent injury to Riley Locklear. Niehaus has been the backup left tackle behind Trey Smith this season.
Pruitt said senior safety Micah Abernathy has "a banged-up ankle" but that he'll be ready to play against Auburn. The Vols are down one safety after freshman Trevon Flowers broke his collarbone in a recent practice.