KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee‘s circuitous head-coaching search, which has taken on just about every twist imaginable, is nearing an end, as the Vols are trying to finalize a deal with Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt after offering him the job earlier Wednesday, sources told ESPN.
Pruitt, 43, is in his second season as Alabama’s defensive coordinator under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide, headed to the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year, are ranked first nationally in scoring defense this season and second nationally in total defense.
Pruitt also is regarded as one of the top recruiters in the SEC. As an assistant coach, he has been a part of four national championship teams.
Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee’s former College Football Hall of Fame coach, replaced John Currie on Friday as the Vols’ athletic director; he has spearheaded the coaching search ever since. Fulmer interviewed Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker on Tuesday in New York City but told them on Wednesday that the school planned to go in another direction.
Pruitt, a two-time Broyles Award finalist as the top assistant coach in college football, possesses two of the qualities that Fulmer put a premium on in his search for the Vols’ next coach: a tough-minded defensive presence and a proven track record as a recruiter.
Pruitt, a former defensive back at Alabama, served two different stints on the Crimson Tide staff under Saban. He was initially coached in Tuscaloosa from 2007 to 2012, the last three seasons as defensive backs coach. Pruitt also was the defensive coordinator at Florida State on the Seminoles’ 2013 national championship team, and he was the defensive coordinator at Georgia under Mark Richt for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, before returning to his alma mater.
The son of legendary Alabama high school coach Dale Pruitt, Pruitt was an assistant coach in the high school ranks before catching on with his alma mater in 2007 as Saban’s director of player development. Both of Pruitt’s defenses as Alabama’s defensive coordinator have led the country in scoring defense. His Florida State defense in 2013 also led the country in scoring defense.
Saban, who hired Pruitt to replace Kirby Smart, called Pruitt a tremendous teacher of the game.
“He knew our defense, knew how we wanted things done, because he’d been with us before and had gone out on his own and done an excellent job at Florida State and Georgia,” Saban told ESPN last year. “I’m not into comparisons, but what I will say is that he’s made it easier for our guys to play faster, more instinctive, and we’ve made very few mistakes. So much of coaching is how the kids respond, and they’ve responded great to Jeremy.”
“He can relate to anybody, and you see that with the way guys have bought into new roles, and guys have been able to move around and play different spots,” Anderson said last year. “But the big thing he does is that he lets his dogs go hunt. There ain’t no holding back.”
Pruitt would become the fifth different head coach at Tennessee in the past 11 years. He would replace Butch Jones, who was fired after going 34-27 overall and 14-24 in SEC play in five seasons in Knoxville.
The No. 4 Crimson Tide plays No. 1 Clemson in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.
It would be the third season in a row that Alabama has dealt with losing a coordinator before playing in the College Football Playoff. Two years ago, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was named Georgia’s new coach before helping the Crimson Tide win their fourth national title under coach Nick Saban. Last season, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was named Florida Atlantic’s coach and then was relieved of his duties by Saban only a week before Alabama lost to Clemson 35-31 in the CFP Championship Game.
USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, a former Tennessee quarterback who guided the Volunteers to the 1998 national championship, is not expected to return to his alma mater as offensive coordinator, sources told ESPN. Martin was contacted by Fulmer during the search, but never interviewed for the position.