KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt wasted no time after capturing his fourth national championship in the last seven years on Monday night.
After wrapping up his obligations as Alabama’s defensive coordinator in the Crimson Tide’s 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia, Pruitt was back in his office at the Anderson Training Center in Knoxville by lunchtime on Tuesday.
It’s been a whirlwind month for Pruitt, who juggled recruiting for Tennessee and game-planning for the College Football Playoff after being named the Vols’ 26th head coach on Dec. 7.
“I’m excited to finally be in Knoxville and getting started,” Pruitt said on Wednesdayin his first press conference as the UT head coach since his introduction to Rocky Top last month.
“It’s been a long time coming for me. Since the opening press conference, we’ve kind of had a whirlwind, trying to hire a staff, get started in recruiting, and I think the staff that we’ve put together so far, which we’re still working on it, I’m excited about the guys that we’ve hired. These guys have done an excellent job while I’ve been away, along with (Director of Athletics) Phillip Fulmer.”
Pruitt is still completing his staff, but he confirmed several hires. The Tennessee athletic department will have an official release on the new assistant coaches in the coming days.
Pruitt, who also did a television interview that will air on the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum Show, was very complimentary of Fulmer, who was named Tennessee’s Athletic Director on Dec. 1, as well as his Alabama boss, Nick Saban, Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher and Miami (Fla.) head coach Mark Richt. Pruitt served as the defensive coordinator at Florida State under Fisher in 2013 before working in the same role under Richt at Georgia in 2014 and 2015.
Pruitt thanked Fulmer for letting him finish what he started at Alabama. He is looking forward to relying on Fulmer, who led the Vols to the 1998 national championship, as a sounding board.
“I knew that anytime I had any questions, I knew that whenever I needed advice, I knew that was probably as good a guy in the business that I could go lean on and talk to,” Pruitt said of Fulmer. “Especially the fact that he’s been here before. I told the players last night, there are no perfect coaches, there are no perfect players and there never will be, so we’re always learning.”
Pruitt held a team meeting Tuesday night. He will continue assembling his staff and, of course, recruiting with the Feb. 7 Signing Day fast approaching.
The Vols signed 14 student-athletes in the December Early Signing Period, including seven or eight who will be early enrollees and in class for the current semester that began on Wednesday.
“We had 14 guys that signed at mid-year,” Pruitt said. “Out of those 14 guys, we have now seven that are here, and we still have one that’s waiting on a bit of paperwork to get here. We have to finish up this class, and I’m looking forward to doing it. We also need to start on the 2019 class and the 2020 class.”
On Monday night just after 8 p.m., Pruitt was directing the defense for the national champions in Atlanta.
Less than 24 hours later, it was back to his head coach role. Pruitt addressed his Tennessee team and began building the foundation for the 2018 fall season.
“Last night we had an opportunity to meet with the team for the first time, kind of setting the groundwork for our expectations for the coming semester and offseason program,” Pruitt said. “Everybody was all smiles, they always are the first meeting. But we’re excited to get started.”
Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt Press Conference Transcript
“I’m excited to finally be in Knoxville and getting started. It’s been a long time coming for me. Since the opening press conference, we’ve kind of had a whirlwind, trying to hire a staff, get started in recruiting, and I think the staff that we’ve put together so far, which we’re still working on it, I’m excited about the guys that we’ve hired. These guys have done an excellent job while I’ve been away, along with Coach Fulmer. It’s been a tremendous asset for me to have somebody to lean on and to kind of right the ship while I’ve been away. I was thankful for (Coach Fulmer) giving me the opportunity to let me finish what I had started at Alabama, and I’m thankful that those guys finished the way that we wanted to there at the end. We had 14 guys that signed at mid-year. Out of those 14 guys, we have now seven that are here, and we still have one that’s waiting on a bit of paperwork to get here. We have to finish up this class, and I’m looking forward to doing it. We also need to start on the 2019 class and the 2020 class. Last night we had an opportunity to meet with the team for the first time, kind of setting the ground work for our expectations for the coming semester and offseason program. Everybody was all smiles, they always are the first meeting. But we’re excited to get started. We had a couple guys that decided to forego their senior year to enter the draft, and we wish those guys luck. We’re thankful for what they did at the University of Tennessee, they’re VFLs, Vol For Life’s, and they’ll always be welcome back here anytime.”
On his communication with the players that decided to enter the NFL Draft:
“When I first got here, the first couple of days I met with everyone on the team. And there were some guys that had already put in paperwork to see where they were going to be. All of the guys that were considering it, they laid that out to me and we talked about it. For me, it’s not my job to decide whether or not they should do that and make that decision. My job was to help them get the information so them and their families could make the decision that they felt like was best for them.”
On what his biggest challenge is stepping into head coaching role:
“Probably the first thing is to learn everybody’s name in this building. It seems like I walk by somebody everyday and I’m trying to re-introduce myself to him. So, kind of just getting to know everybody, kind of getting the familiarity with everybody in the building. Getting to know our players, that’s the most important thing. I feel like that’s one of the things over the years that has helped contribute to the success that I’ve had is the players, getting heavily involved with them. Right now, the players, they don’t know me and I don’t know them. We started last night, so it was the first day and today’s the second day, and we’ll see if everybody went to class and kind of go from there.”
On any roster moves and status of wide receiver Jauan Jennings within the program:
“Everybody that was on the roster at the end of the season, that we met with at the end of the semester, was here last night. Obviously there had been some movements that happened before I was here. I really had no control over that. I know there’s a lot from you guys, you have to write about things. From my standpoint, I know Jauan has reached out to Coach Fulmer and I know they met. I actually reached out to him, because I felt like him talking to coach Fulmer, I should do that. There will be a time, probably in the next couple days, where me and him possibly sit down and just kind of see where things are at.”
On what attributes he was looking for in his assistants:
“The first thing to me was good people. I want to be around folks that are kind of for my vision. Obviously we want to win football games, we want guys that can come here and get a degree and (have) the complete experience of student-athletes, but more importantly, I want a place that everybody feels comfortable coming to. I wanted a place that my kids can come up here, our coaches’ kids could come up here, a family atmosphere. Not only can these guys learn about football from us, but also can watch us be fathers, watch us be husbands. I think when you look at our staff, that’s what we’ve gotten. A lot of these guys I’ve worked with, starting on the offensive side, Tyson Helton. The first time I met Tyson was probably in about 2004, I was a defensive back coach at Hoover High School, and Tyson was coming by recruiting at the time. I think he might have been at Memphis at that time. We met for the first time and kind of hit it off, so I’ve known him since that time. Offensive line coach Will Friend, we’ve worked together at Georgia. There was times off and on when we were in college, we were roommates, so he’s been one of my dearest friends over the years, so I know what kind of man he is. Brian Niedermeyer is a young guy that worked with us at Georgia, he followed us to Alabama, and we’re gonna give him an opportunity here on the field. Robert Gillespie obviously was on the previous staff. Robert’s going to continue in a role here on the offensive side of the ball. He’s the one guy that I’ve not worked with, but it’s kind of interesting – when you get an opportunity to interview for jobs, you’re trying to figure out if you get that chance, who are you going to hire. He’s a guy that kind of came on my radar, so I’m excited to have him here. On the defensive side, starting with Kevin Sherrer who will be the defensive coordinator, me and Kevin played together at Alabama, we worked together at Hoover High School, worked together at Alabama. He was actually on the staff at Georgia, and now I’m really excited to have him here. We can kind of finish each other’s sentences so to say. He knows exactly what I’m looking for. Chris Rumph will be our co-defensive coordinator. Chris’s office was beside mine at Alabama. He’s actually going to coach the outside linebackers. A lot of people have asked me questions about that. Chris is going to coach the outside linebackers. He’s a great pass rush technician, we’re excited to have him. Tracy Rocker is the D-line coach. Everybody knows what kind of player he was when he was in college. I’d always joked with him that my Dad was an Auburn fan and he’s so old that I used to go to fan day and I used to sit on his lap to get his autograph. We coached together at Georgia for two years, we were actually neighbors. He’ll do a tremendous job here. Charles Kelly is going to coach the safeties, he’ll be our special teams coordinator. We worked together at Florida State, have known each other for a long time. Terry Fair is going to be the corners coach. He’s a former Vol, and we actually joke when we were all playing, we played against each other, and one of my good buddies was the quarterback at Alabama at the time. We always kind of joked how many interceptions he threw Terry over the course of two or three years there. But I’m excited to have all these guys here. Our strength staff, we’ve hired Craig Fitzgerald. He’s coming from the Houston Texans. I’m real excited about him, his background. I met with him. We kind of have the same beliefs and we’re excited about getting that going. There’s still some things on the staff that we’ve got to get done, and it will be a work in progress, and it will probably continue all the way through February.”
On assessment of quarterbacks playing in the National Championship game:
“Really, there’s three quarterbacks that played in that game that are really fantastic football players. Luckily, I know all three of them, starting with Jake Fromm. My son is a sophomore at Jacksonville State, and I used to take him to quarterback camps in south Georgia. I’m sitting there watching him – I guess it would have been four or five years ago – and there’s a kid in this group, I’m sitting here watching, saying ‘man, this guy can really spin it.’ Well it was Jake Fromm. So, it’s kind of unique how things turn out, but Jake had a fantastic freshman year, he’s probably one of the best quarterbacks we’ve played against and he’s got a fantastic future. The two guys at Alabama, starting with Jalen Hurts, a guy that’s started as many games as he has and had the success that he has. Then the opportunity that Tua (Tagovailoa) kind of created for himself and took advantage of, it says a lot about these guys. That’s two games over the next couple years, as young as these guys are, we’re gonna have our hands full.”
On having Phil Fulmer as athletic director through the process of balancing two jobs:
“First of all, coach Fulmer – I said it in the opening press conference and I knew when I had the opportunity to take the job, the man that I was going to come work for. I knew that anytime I had any questions, I knew that whenever I needed advice, I knew that was probably as good a guy in the business that I could go lean on and talk to. Especially the fact that he’s been here before. I told the players last night, there’s no perfect coaches, there’s no perfect players and there never will be, so we’re always learning.”
On what the last 48 hours have been like for him with the transition to his new position as Tennessee’s head coach:
“First of all, most of the time after the game your adrenaline is going anyhow. So sometimes it’s hard to go to sleep for me. But that was a late game as it was and knowing where I’m going the next day and that I’ve kind of been waiting on this moment to get it going, it’s almost kind of chomping at the bit. I was excited and I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep. I received a lot of phone calls. Coach (Kevin) Sherrer, it was a good thing that he was kind of going through the same thing, so he and I stayed up at night and we talked late nights all during the week leading up to game week, obviously just trying to plan the rest of our week and what we were going to do when we got here. You get here, you kind of get started back. Where are we at in recruiting? Where are we at with our players? What do we have to do? What do we have to do with our staff moving forward? It has been exciting.”
On his excitement level for recruiting and if it is different from that perspective as a head coach now coming from being a coordinator:
“The first day that we could go out (recruiting), I’m sitting here planning my recruiting for the week. So I’m writing everywhere I’m going to go this week. When I got done, Coach (Tyson) Helton looked at me and he goes, ‘You do realize you are the head football coach now?’ I just kind of looked at him. ‘You only get one time, Jeremy.’ I’m used to seeing everybody one time a week. As a head football coach, you get one time for the year. That part I don’t really like. I like to go see them once a week for sure.”
On how important the line of scrimmage will be in recruiting:
“To me, obviously if you are going to be good on either side of the ball, it starts up front. If you are going to have success on offense, you better be able to run the football and you better be able to run it when the other team knows you are going to run it, and that starts up front. Same thing defensively – you have to be able to control the line of scrimmage. You have to keep the other team from being able to run the football. Ideally, the way you want it is you want to be able to stop the run with four guys and be able to rush the quarterback with four guys, that way you have seven to cover them. So, it starts up front.”
On how he kept his championship week discussions with former Georgia assistant Kevin Sherrer from being awkward and if the two have been able to talk about the game since:
“For us, we’ve know each other for 22, 23 years. We were talking about what we were going to do at Tennessee. We weren’t talking about the game those nights. We were trying to get a plan of ‘Hey, have you talked to this recruit this week?’ and ‘Have you talked to this one this day? Has so-and-so talked to him? Let’s make sure you look at these guys.’ We’re feeding each other and from here our guys were feeding us video tape – ‘Make sure you see this guy. Make sure you see this guy.’ If you notice, while we’ve been gone, we still put out a lot of offers and we’re not going to put out offers unless I approve of them. We had to watch tape and see it and I wanted to get Kevin’s input. After the game, we both flew back together. When you play the game, somebody is going to win, somebody is going to lose. We knew that going into it. That’s the way it is going to always be. It’s tough for whoever is on the other side of it, so we’ve both been there on both sides and it is what it is.”
On what Jimbo Fisher said to him after the championship game:
“We were talking about early signing period for next year. We were talking about the game a little bit to start with and then just kind of talked about official visits, what we’re going to do. What’s your plan? Again, it’s something where you’re just trying to get ideas. Anytime I get the opportunity to bounce something off people who have more experience than me, I’m obviously going to do it. The biggest challenge here is just kind of getting it going. We are starting to create the right culture, the expectations of what we want we want to do and who we want to be and basically for the kids to get to know us and understand it. We started that last night. This is something that is going to take time. I don’t think you can put a timetable on it, but you’ve got to start somewhere and we started last night.”
On if there was a point that it sunk in that the dual roles were over and he just had to worry about Tennessee:
“Yeah I would think [it was] probably after the game. When the game was over with and we got back to the hotel. You go in there and kind of see everybody for the last time. I went to school at Alabama, I’ve coached there for eight years, have a lot of friends there. Everybody knows the rivalry and all that, but to kind of see everybody off and all that deal was good for me, I enjoyed it. But I had to tell my wife, ‘let’s go, let’s get to the room because we got to get packed up. We got to get ready to go in the morning.’ I’ve been ready to get here. I’ve talked about it before, the whole reason 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. But most of the time my mind was thinking in Knoxville, I can tell you that.”
On if it’s natural for him to be able to turn the page so quickly:
“Well I can tell you this. If you ain’t recruiting 365 days a year, somebody else is. So if we want to get what we want, we better get started. That’s what we’ve been trying to do and that’s what we’re going to do. There’s one thing about it, everybody’s got the same thing. There’s 24 hours in a day and there’s seven days in a week and there’s what you’re going to do with them, and we’re going to try and do the best that we can and really try and grind it out and outwork people.”
On balancing scouting the current roster and the needs in recruiting:
“I think the biggest thing is you kind of look at roster management and where did the season end? To me it’s really based off numbers, not exactly the quality at the numbers. To me it’s about the numbers that you have at the position so you can make it through spring ball. From there we’re trying to find guys who pass our criteria when it comes to the recruiting front. The size, speed, do they have the intangibles? Are they good students? Are they good leaders? Are they captains of their football team? Do we think we can win a cahmpionship with them? For us, if we’re going to extend a scholarship offer to these guys we want them to meet those criteria. The one thing about the early signing period that’s probably for the transition of me coming to Tennessee … one of the big things for me in recruiting is relationships. I’m a big believer in you better know what you’re going to get. There’s some of the guys that we recruited, some of them we knew for nine days, so they might have passed the evaluation part as far as what they are as football players but sometimes it’s hard to get to know everybody in nine days and get all the information. That’s something that we’re trying to get on right now and we’ve been trying to follow through with it since we started.”
On where Coach Brian Niedermeyer will coach on offense and the ideal makeup he’s looking for in an outside linebacker:
“First of all, on the offensive side of the ball, Coach (Will) Friend will coach the offensive line, Coach Helton has coached quarterbacks but he’s coached a number of positions, but he’ll coach quarterbacks here, Brian (Niedermeyer) could actually coach any position on the offensive side of the ball – he actually could coach on the defensive side of the ball – he’s worked on both sides. We’re in the process of filling another spot there and we’ve got guys that are flexible that could move around.
“The outside linebacker position for us … first of all when we’re recruiting linebackers we want what I would say [is a] four for four guy. We have a SAM, MIKE, WILL and JACK. Well to me if we’re going to recruit a linebacker the best guys that we can recruit could play all four positions. For instance you take a guy like Don’t’a Hightower. At Alabama he played MIKE linebacker but on third down he rushed the quarterback at outside backer. He first year with the Patriots he played for them as an outside linebacker, now he’s been playing in the league for several years as an inside backer. You look this past year at the injuries that we had [at Alabama] at the linebacker position, we were fortunate that we had recruited guys that were four for four guys. They had the ability to play inside or outside so it helped us when it came to depth when we lost all these guys during the year. For us, we’re looking for guys that if they’re going to be outside backers we need guys who can rush the quarterback, who can change the game there. They’ve got to have ability to drop out in coverage some, not much, but we would also like to sign guys at that position that can stack back have the instincts to play inside backer.”
On how pleased he is with the class his staff has been able to put together in such a short window and what positions still need to be addressed the most:
“Well we’re real excited about the 14 guys that we signed in the early signing period. I thought our staff did a fantastic job identifying who we needed, who we wanted, and going and getting them and that’s the big thing. It starts with the evals. You want to make sure that you’re going after the right people and once you figure that out you got to go get them.
“As far as where we’re going from here, I don’t think that would be very smart on my part to let everybody know what we’re looking for, so we’ll just keep that a secret right now. We’re going to try and recruit the best players that we can find that fit what we’re looking for to build a championship team.”