Another Nick Saban disciple lands SEC gig: Will Jeremy Pruitt be more Jim McElwain or Kirby Smart?

I have one big question about new Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt.

It isn’t about his on-field résumé. That certainly speaks for itself. The guy has done pretty well for himself since being known as the Hoover High School defensive coordinator on the MTV show “Two-A-Days.” From being part of a national championship team as Florida State’s defensive coordinator in 2013 to being one incomplete pass away from doing the same thing at Alabama last year, Pruitt’s credentials are legit.

My question isn’t about his ability to recruit at Tennessee. Guys like Derrick Henry have come out and said that they went to Alabama because of Pruitt. Blue chip recruits like Dylan Moses, Lorenzo Carter, Roquan Smith, T.J. Yeldon and Jalen Ramsey all went to their respective schools thanks to Pruitt’s recruiting efforts. It’s easy to forget that a major reason for Georgia’s defensive dominance during its SEC Championship run was because of Pruitt’s ability to lure those big-time recruits.

Those were the primary reasons that Pruitt landed his first head coaching gig. Irrelevant is the fact that Pruitt wasn’t Tennessee’s first, second or even sixth choice to fill this vacancy. That won’t determine his success.

The fact that he’s never been a head coach at any level won’t define Pruitt’s tenure at Tennessee. Fellow Nick Saban disciple Kirby Smart never ran his own team before he got to Georgia, and now he’s preparing for the Playoff in Year 2. Pruitt joined the ever-growing list of Saban disciples to earn a head coaching gig in the SEC.

My question is whether Pruitt will be more like Smart, or if Tennessee just hired the next Jim McElwain.

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Those sound like extreme ends of the spectrum. One coach is playing for a chance to make it to a national championship and the other couldn’t even last 3 full seasons on the job. What’s to say Pruitt has to be one or the other?

That’s not really my question. I want to know how Pruitt handles the peaks and valleys of his first big-time job.

Is he going to be like Smart? The guy who lived in a rented home in his first full season as Georgia’s coach didn’t panic when his team finished the regular season a disappointing 7-5 in Year 1. At a place where 9-10 wins were the bare minimum, Smart didn’t cave under pressure from fans, who had to wonder if he was really built for the opportunity in front of him.

Or will Pruitt follow the path of McElwain? The guy who was nothing but a quirky, happy-go-lucky guy when Florida won two division titles ultimately cracked when things fell apart in Year 3.

RELATED: Kirk Herbstreit shares thoughts on Tennessee’s hiring of Jeremy Pruitt

We get caught up in résumés and often overlook the personality traits that are needed to succeeded at high-profile programs like Tennessee. Say what you want about whether that job is really “elite,” but these past 2 weeks were a reminder of just how high-profile it is.

Butch Jones didn’t have the mental makeup for that. His résumé said he was a young, up-and-coming coach who would bring a new energy to the program. Instead, he delivered a couple of decent seasons and a whole lot of bizarre phrases. Jones’ problem was never his inability to recruit. From 2014-17, Jones’ classes never ranked worse than No. 17 nationally. He got the big-time in-state recruits. He even won 9 games with them in consecutive seasons.

But Jones, like McElwain, didn’t take well to the notion that 9 wins wasn’t good enough. It’s fair to say that both lost control of their programs.

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Is Pruitt going to be like that, too? That’s the ultimate question. And as much as we can sit here and talk about which recruits loved him and how many coaches vouched for him — Saban said that Pruitt was his only choice as defensive coordinator when Smart left — that was all about Jeremy Pruitt, the assistant coach. Being the CEO of your own program is a different ballgame.

That’s the risk that Tennessee took. New athletic director Phillip Fulmer (still not used to typing that) was willing to hire a guy without any head coaching experience. John Currie wasn’t willing to go that route when he was busy courting the likes of Greg Schiano, Mike Gundy, Jeff Brohm, Dave Doeren, Mike Leach and others to come to Knoxville.

It took 2 weeks longer than it should’ve, but the Vols finally have someone to steer the once-sinking ship. Tennessee is not a place where 3- or 4-year rebuilds are tolerated. Pruitt will face plenty of heat to turn around a program that failed to win an SEC game. After he gets his feet wet with what’s sure to be a challenging Year 1, he’ll face the same set of “win the East or go home” standards that Jones and his predecessors faced.

Tennessee fans are already deciding if Pruitt is destined for success or if he’s destined to come up short of Rocky Top expectations. Maybe they’ll even use the McElwain-to-Smart scale for which all Saban-disciple hires should be graded.

But we won’t be able to grade this hire today, tomorrow or the next day. Eventually, though, Pruitt will answer the most important question. Will he cave under the pressure like McElwain or will he drown out the noise like Smart?

Pruitt’s path has yet to be determined. It’s only a matter of time until he comes to that fork in the road.


Source: Saturday Down South

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