KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Now that he no longer has to divide his time between two jobs, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt can concentrate solely on transforming the Volunteers into Southeastern Conference championship contenders once again.
Not that he ever stopped thinking about Tennessee football even while helping Alabama win a national title in his position as the Crimson Tide's defensive coordinator. And nne day after Alabama completed its title run, Pruitt was back in Knoxville for good.
"The whole reason that I stayed and coached in that game was because I felt like I needed to do it for those kids to help them get what they want," Pruitt said Wednesday in his first news conference since returning to Tennessee's campus. "Most of the time, my mind was thinking in Knoxville, I can tell you that."
Pruitt's defense allowed an 80-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter but otherwise shut down Georgia's potent offense after halftime in Alabama's 26-23 overtime victory Monday, marking the fifth time he's been associated with a national championship team. Pruitt also was Florida State's defensive coordinator in 2013 and was on Alabama's staff during the Crimson Tide's 2009, 2011 and 2012 title runs.
The way Pruitt handled his divided responsibilities these last few weeks impressed his new boss. Tennessee's 2018 recruiting class is currently rated 16th by the 247Sports Composite after being ranked outside the top 50 just prior to the December signing period.
"The things I thought about him were validated - how hard a worker he is, how good a communicator he is," Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said. "He doesn't need a whole lot of sleep, I can tell you that."
Pruitt's dual role as Alabama's defensive coordinator and Tennessee's head coach led to some odd situations during the Tide's playoff run.
In the days leading up to the championship game, Pruitt had plenty of late-night chats discussing Tennessee recruiting with Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer, who will now be the Volunteers' defensive coordinator. Pruitt and Sherrer even flew to Knoxville together after the title game.
Pruitt noted that he has known Sherrer for about 23 years and that they were talking about their Tennessee plans rather than the championship game itself during those conversations over the last week.
"When you play the game, somebody's going to win, somebody's going to lose," Pruitt said. "It's tough for whoever's on the other side of it. We've been there on both sides."
Pruitt's defensive staff also includes former Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph, former Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly and former Colorado State assistant Terry Fair plus Tracy Rocker, a former Auburn star and longtime SEC assistant who was out of coaching this season.
His offensive staff will include former Southern California passing game coordinator Tyson Helton, former Colorado State offensive coordinator Will Friend and former Alabama support staffer Brian Niedermeyer as well as Robert Gillespie, a holdover from former Tennessee coach Butch Jones' staff. Pruitt said he is still finalizing the rest of his staff.
Pruitt has previous connections to most of them. For instance, Pruitt and Sherrer played together at Alabama. Pruitt says he has known Helton since 2004. Pruitt worked with Rumph at Alabama, with Friend and Rocker at Georgia and with Kelly at Florida State.
They face a tough challenge rebuilding a Tennessee team that is coming off a 4-8 finish in which it set a school record for losses and didn't win a single Southeastern Conference game. Since the season ended, Tennessee junior running back John Kelly , defensive back Rashaan Gaulden and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie have all announced they're forgoing their final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.
But there's also the possibility a former Tennessee player could come back.
Pruitt said he recently reached out to wide receiver Jauan Jennings, who also has met with Fulmer. Jennings was dismissed from the team in late November after he criticized Tennessee's 2017 coaching staff in a profanity-laced video posted on Instagram.
"There'll be a time probably in the next couple of days that me and him may possibly sit down and just see where things are at," Pruitt said.
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