KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jeremy Pruitt and members of his newly assembled coaching staff popped in and out of Tennessee‘s meeting room, occasionally huddling in front of the large television on the wall as it spit out signing-day news at a clip surpassed only by the incessant buzzing of Pruitt’s cellphone.
One by one, many of the Vols’ most coveted prospects lingered, then passed over the Tennessee cap in front of them on the table in favor of an Alabama cap, a Georgia cap, a Florida cap, a Florida State cap or a USC cap.
For Tennessee fans, it probably felt eerily similar to the Vols’ search for a football coach, which saw one high-profile candidate after another either turn the job down and stay put or elect to go elsewhere. That’s not to mention the very public and demonstrative meltdown among fans, donors, local media and state politicians when former athletic director John Currie tried to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
The fallout from the mother of dysfunctional coaching searches included a change in athletic directors — midsearch. Currie was out. Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer was in, and an unfazed and eager Pruitt was the one standing at the podium when the orange haze cleared.
In both cases, the Vols swung for the fences, and while Pruitt can’t speak to what did or didn’t happen in the circuitous process that led to his being named Tennessee’s head coach, he’s not about to apologize for targeting some of the best prospects in the country.
“We gotta have players,” a sleep-deprived Pruitt told one coach as he scurried last minute to squeeze everything he could out of this first class.
The coach responded by asking Pruitt if he would go to Arizona to get him.
“I will go to dadgum China for him if he’s a player,” Pruitt shot back in his familiar Southern twang.
Even though his rise in college football has been meteoric — Pruitt was still coaching high school football 12 years ago — he’s anything but naïve. He understands the challenge ahead of him in rebuilding a program that hasn’t even been to the SEC championship game since Fulmer was coaching (four head coaches ago), but Pruitt also understands the kind of player it takes to build a championship program. He was a part of five national championship staffs as either director of player personnel, defensive backs coach or defensive coordinator at both Alabama and Florida State.
“If we’re not recruiting those players and getting those kinds of players, then we’re not doing our job,” said Pruitt, who takes over a Tennessee program that is a combined 4-26 over the last decade against Alabama, Florida and Georgia, with an average margin of defeat of 17.1 points in those 26 losses.
“You win with players, and it’s not always the players ranked the highest,” Pruitt added. “We’re going to trust our evaluations and trust the connections and relationships we’ve cultivated over time as a staff. There are players out there. You gotta go find them. Sometimes they’re the so-called tier-two players. But most of the time, they’re the players Alabama is getting, the players Georgia is getting, and that’s who we need to be battling against and winning our share of battles against if we’re going to get this program where we all want it to be.”
In short, if the Vols aren’t going to beat the likes of Alabama, Florida and Georgia on the recruiting trail, they’re not going to start beating them on the field anytime soon.
The Vols went into national signing day earlier this month feeling as if they were at least in the hunt with such four- and five-star prospects as linebacker Quay Walker, receiver Jacob Copeland, cornerback Olaijah Griffin, cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart and receiver Jordan Young. All five had Tennessee among their top choices on signing day, a fact that itself is impressive, given how little time Pruitt had to put this class together.
Ultimately, all five went elsewhere, but the Vols did win a few battles that resonated, especially when you count the early signing period. For starters, they beat Alabama for tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson of Arizona Western College and linebacker J.J. Peterson of Moultrie, Georgia. They beat Florida for offensive lineman Jerome Carvin of Cordova, Tennessee. They beat UCLA for running back Jeremy Banks of Cordova. They beat Clemson for safety Trevon Flowers of Tucker, Georgia, and held off Georgia for receiver Alontae Taylor of Manchester, Tennessee.
“But what you need is that you need 15 guys that you beat Alabama and Georgia on instead of three or four,” said Pruitt, whose pull-no-punches approach has served him well in the past on the recruiting trail. Tennessee safety Micah Abernathy was recruited to Georgia by Pruitt when Pruitt was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and is confident things are about to change with the Vols, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
“He never told me I was going to come in and do this or do that when he was recruiting me,” Abernathy recounted. “He told me I was going to come in and compete and told me what he was going to do to help me be the player I wanted to be. My brother also played college football, so I knew how to decipher what was real and what wasn’t. Coach Pruitt was the most real coach that recruited me. We need a little bit of that here. People are going to stand up straight and do it his way. I promise you that.”
Pruitt admittedly had to be a bit creative in this first class. There simply wasn’t a lot of time to put it together after being named Tennessee’s coach on Dec. 7, less than two weeks before the early signing period began, and then juggling two jobs while staying on as Alabama’s defensive coordinator through the national championship game.
“Just as I will do here, I was going to finish what I started,” Pruitt said of not leaving his Alabama post immediately after being named Tennessee’s coach. “Tennessee will get that same dedication. It’s the way I believe in doing things.”
He’s not going to mind stepping on toes, either. Case in point: He’s already made it known to some of the recruiting handlers out there in different communities that he’s not going to be coaxed into signing players based purely on offers they might have from other schools, especially when those offers are courtesy offers to help a handler get his prospect into more doors.
As his wife, Casey, warned him earlier in the day: “Being nice will get you fired.”
Pruitt learned that from the best, his former boss at Alabama, Nick Saban, whom Pruitt joked was as savvy coordinating his lunchtime pickup basketball games as he was mapping out the Crimson Tide’s recruiting.
“I used to play in those games but got hurt because I was too aggressive and had to give it up,” Pruitt said. “I was going all out for every offensive rebound and hurt myself.”
And while it has been well chronicled that Saban is the commissioner for those pickup hoops games, meaning he chooses the teams and calls the fouls, he occasionally even makes trades … midgame.
“That’s how I got on his team, going for every offensive rebound and every loose ball,” Pruitt joked. “Maybe that’s how I got noticed when I first got there. I don’t know, but it all worked out.”
Tennessee fans are hoping that same aggressive approach works out in their favor, too, now that Pruitt is calling the shots.