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Pruitt steps into the head coach’s void: ‘I chose to be here’

For the fourth time since 2009, Tennessee will start its football season with a new head coach. Following the footsteps of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, and Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt now holds the reins of the Volunteers’ program. But this time, there is a palpable sense that things are going to be different.

Certainly, the road traveled between Jones’s dismissal and Pruitt’s hiring was different.

Previously the defensive coordinator at Alabama, Pruitt has never been a head coach. The last time UT went that route, Phil Fulmer — the guy who hired Pruitt — took over for Johnny Majors after the 1992 season. (Fulmer was the offensive coordinator and O-line coach under Majors.)

So, in the wake of the Kiffin Error, the Dooley Debacle, and failing to become more than “Champions of Life” under Jones, Tennessee is staking its future with Pruitt. He was a grad assistant at Alabama in 1997 before becoming a high school coach (1998-2006). In the past 10 years, Pruitt has been part of four national championships.

Jeremy Pruitt Résumé

2007-09 — Director of Player Development at Alabama

2010-12 — Defensive backs coach at Alabama

  • In 2010, Bama’s secondary led the SEC in passing efficiency.
  • In 2011, Bama’s secondary led the nation in pass defense and passing efficiency.
  • In 2012, Bama’s secondary was seventh in pass defense.

2013 — Defensive coordinator and DBs coach at Florida State

  • In 2013, FSU’s defense was first in scoring and third in total defense.

2014-15 — Defensive coordinator and DBs coach at Georgia

  • In 2014, UGa’s defense was top-10 in turnover margin, passing yards allowed; 17th in total defense.
  • In 2015, UGa’s defense led the nation in fewest passing yards allowed per game; seventh in total defense.

2016-17 — Defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach at Alabama

  • In 2016, Bama’s defense led the nation in scoring and rushing defense; second in total defense.
  • In 2017, Bama’s defense ranked first in scoring; second in total defense.

Pruitt inherits a program that has recruited well during the past five years but has little on-field success to show for its efforts. Since 2013, Tennessee is 34-29 and coming off the program’s first eight-loss season. In fact, UT had five seven-loss seasons between 2008-13.

But according to the 247 Sports recruiting rankings, the talent is there;

  • 2010 — 7th
  • 2011 — 12th
  • 2012 — 17th
  • 2013 — 26th
  • 2014 — 7th
  • 2015 — 3rd
  • 2016 — 15th
  • 2017 — 11th
  • Avg. — 12th

“I’m going to tell you this, you didn’t draft me. I chose to be here,” Pruitt said Thursday when he was introduced as Tennessee’s 26th head coach. “I told the players today that they chose to sign with the University of Tennessee. With what we want and where we want to go, we are talking about championships.”

File “championship” under long-term goals. The last time Tennessee played in the SEC Championship Game was 2007. The last time Tennessee won the SEC championship was 1998.

Pruitt has learned at the feet of college football’s most successful coach for the past decade, Nick Saban. For the third consecutive season, an Alabama coordinator has been lured away: Kirby Smart (2015, Georgia); Kiffin (2015, Florida Atlantic); and Pruitt. Indeed the Saban coaching tree continues to bear fruit.

Two other former Saban assistant are head coaches in the SEC: Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp. There also are four other Saban proteges in Division I: Mario Cristobal at Oregon, Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, Michael Haywood at Texas Southern, and Curt Cignetti at Elon.

“My goal is five years from now when I stand back up here, is for everyone to still be this excited. That’s my goal,” Pruitt said. “I’m challenging everybody who is associated with this university. Let’s get our hands out of our pockets. Let’s roll our sleeves up. Let’s get ready to get in the streets with everyone else in the SEC. That’s what we have to do to be successful.

“If we want to get what we want, we have to outwork everyone. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s go do it. It starts today.”

Today, there is no argument: Tennessee football is in a much better place than it was a month ago.