NEWPORT BEACH, CALIF - Jeremy Pruitt threw Florida State's defense for a loop in his first team meeting as the Seminoles' new defensive coordinator.
Here was the man billed as a defensive mastermind, an architect of Alabama's dominating defense, someone who planned to implement significant changes to a defense that had just finished as the second-stingiest unit in the country. Some FSU defenders had spurned the NFL draft to come back and play another year, in part because of the changes Pruitt and Jimbo Fisher were supposedly bringing.
Yet he'd never been a defensive coordinator. He was unassuming and spoke with a thick Alabama drawl. It wasn't the look of a defensive wiz kid on the surface.
"I thought he was funny," senior defensive end Christian Jones said. "He has that country accent, that Alabama accent to him. I wasn't really used to that."
Six months later, Pruitt is coaching arguably the best defense in the country - and the most dynamic one. All the changes he put in place have worked in a big way. Florida State leads the country in scoring defense, passing defense and is second in turnover margin. Pruitt has gone from a relative unknown on the Alabama staff to a finalist for the Broyles award for the best assistant coach in the country, and his defense will be on display in the national championship game.
Tweaks and changes
At Florida State's media day at the start of the season, Pruitt maintained that FSU's defense wasn't changing much. Even now, he called the changes "tweaks."
"Everybody talks about how we tweaked the defense," Pruitt said. "Jimbo laid out exactly what he wanted for us as far as the tweaks. This is Jimbo's philosophy and what we're trying to get done. He brought me in, and there's a reason, because of the background, and he was familiar with the background. He laid the foundation. He said, this is the players we've got. This is what I want to do."
Players have said through the entire season that it was less about tweaking and more about overhauling.
The early games laid out a similar picture: FSU's defense had gotten a makeover in the offseason, shifting from a vanilla 4-3 scheme under former defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to an aggressive, attacking, shifting defense that could move between 3-4 and 4-3 depending on the play. The level of complexity required an adjustment.
"We worked at it," Pruitt said. "It was a work in progress. It took us a while to get to where we wanted to be, and we're still working every day."
It wasn't a perfectly smooth transition. Pruitt had an embarrassment of riches at FSU, including players like Lamarcus Joyner and Jones, who came back for a senior season despite draft prospects. But many of those players missed Florida State's spring practices with injuries or surgery. Pruitt had to shuffle the lineup in spring and then shuffle it again during the fall camp when players like Ronald Darby got healthy again.
"The first impression was, 'What have I gotten myself into?'" Pruitt said. "About half of them were out for spring training. They'd had surgery from previous year or whatever and I'm sitting here thinking, 'Man where are all these players (FSU defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri)'s been telling me about?'"
With the shifting roster, FSU struggled at times against the run in the first season's first month, most notably against Pittsburgh and Boston College. Players said they knew Pruitt's background from Alabama, but admitted there was some resistance to Pruitt's changes given how good the Seminoles were on defense in 2012. Why mess with a good thing?
"Oh I mean at first coming from a different defense from Coach Stoops there's definitely a little tension there in the beginning and throughout spring and all that," senior safety Terrence Brooks said. "It was hard getting all the things down first. That was for everybody. In any defense."
Not only that, but Florida State's defense is stepped in history. Pruitt was following in the shoes of former defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, and said he's aware of the legacy of which he's a part.
"They've been playing good defense since before these guys were born with Coach Andrews," Pruitt said. "You've got a reputation when you put on that helmet and play on the defense at Florida State."
With that kind of pressure and a few early defensive struggles, it would have been easy for Pruitt to go with a less ambitious defensive scheme. But FSU continued to implement additional blitz packages and scheme adjustments each week for each opponent, building the defensive playbook. Pruitt and players said they're still adding more things this week as well.
And Pruitt, accent aside, brought plenty of energy to the defensive meeting room - something that players say they couldn't help but follow.
"I don't think I've ever seen him not have any energy," Jones said. "And I think players feed off coaches. In meetings he grabs our attention. And we follow that into the games."
More effective than Pruitt's energy was his consistency. Players say he didn't change, and give that aspect credit for defusing any tension as the season went on and players bought in.
"He's the same way he doesn't change for anybody," Brooks said. "He's a genuine dude. He just loves football and wants us to love it also. He's the same person on and off the field that's why we gelled so much to him."
Pruitt clearly hasn't put on any airs as the season progressed. He answered questions in the same Alabama drawl, and kept things simple with his answers. He told folksy jokes about Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart not giving him any insight into Auburn for fear of hurting the SEC brand. In a two-sizes too-big plaid blazer, he looked like country come to town. So far, staying consistent has worked out well - even as everything has changed around Florida State's defense and Pruitt.
"Nothing has changed for us," Pruitt said. "It's attention to detail, and we've got five more days left. We've kind of counted it down all year. Anybody can do anything for five days. That's all we've got left."
Pruitt and Florida State's defense have stymied plenty of opponents, but it would be a fitting coup de grace for FSU to stop the best rushing attack in the nation in the national championship game. And for Pruitt, who has roots in the SEC and deeper roots in the state of Alabama, a win Saturday would be a crowning achievement to a remarkable first season.
When asked if it would mean something to end the SEC's streak of championships, Pruitt said he'd like to end it for sure. When asked why, Pruitt retorted,
"Shoot, because I'm on this side and they're on that side"
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