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Jeremy Pruitt could emerge as hot head-coaching candidate

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jeremy Pruitt stood in front of the media on Saturday for the first and only time this season, and said almost nothing. Alabama’s 43-year-old defensive coordinator did so smiling, with the poise of a seasoned head coach.

Nick Saban would have been proud.

After seven non-consecutive seasons under the often media-averse Saban — one as defensive coordinator, three as a position coach and three as support staffer — Pruitt knows the deal. When he spoke to reporters last weekend, the Tide had been through only two days of practice. So while he was able to say that the weeks leading up to the season were an “exciting time”, he wasn’t ready to say much more.

Would Alabama blitz as much as it did last year? That would depend on the quality of the secondary, which was still to be determined, Pruitt said.

What about Terrell Lewis, who looks like the heir apparent to former star pass-rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson? Pruitt wasn’t ready to single him out, instead mentioning Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings as other options at outside linebacker.

And how were Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis doing fighting for the single open starting spot on the defensive line? Nobody was a lock to start anywhere on defense yet, Pruitt explained.

“Coach [Saban] has what he calls a rep chart,” he said. “There is no depth chart.”

Someone might call that a distinction without a difference. Another person -- an athletic director, perhaps -- might see it as a coordinator wise enough to follow the direction of arguably the best college football coach of his generation.

Jeremy Pruitt might not be a household name yet, but he’s about to be. He’s already being thrown around as a candidate at Ole Miss, and you can expect to hear his name attached to other vacant head-coaching jobs as the year continues.

While learning at the feet of Saban alone makes him an attractive candidate, he has the added bonus of having proven himself elsewhere. He left Alabama to become defensive coordinator at Florida State under Jimbo Fisher in 2013, and after winning a national championship there, spent two seasons as defensive coordinator at Georgia under Mark Richt. When it comes to references, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Although Michigan and UCLA were both interested in talking to him following the 2015 season, Saban ultimately brought him back to Tuscaloosa, calling the decision a "no-brainer." In his four seasons as a defensive coordinator, Pruitt's defenses have finished no worse than 17th in yards per game.

And if you doubt his ambition to further his career beyond that of an assistant -- a $1.3 million assistant at that -- remember that he recently hired agent Jimmy Sexton, who reps many of college football’s top coaches, including Saban.

Everything is lined up for Pruitt to lead his own program, but he must first keep up the pace at Alabama.

Some coaches are lucky enough to coach three first-round picks over the course of their careers; Pruitt sent three to the NFL in the last year alone.

Still, he shrugged off the challenge of replacing so many high-quality players.

“In this profession, it happens every year,” he said. “… It’s something we had to do the year before, and it’s been done for a while.”

A total of six starters are gone from last season’s defense, but plenty of talent remains. Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the most versatile defensive backs in college football, Ronnie Harrison is a heavy hitter at safety, and Anthony Averett is rock solid at corner. Shaun Dion Hamilton is back from knee surgery at middle linebacker, and the uber-athletic Rashaan Evans should start alongside him. The defensive line takes a hit, but returning nose guard Da'Ron Payne is as underappreciated as any player in the SEC. Defensive end Da’Shawn Hand has the talent to be a first-round pick if he can stay on the straight and narrow.

The good news is we’ll get a feel for the caliber of this defense right away when Alabama opens the season against Florida State. The Seminoles, ranked third in the coaches poll, return starting quarterback Deondre Francois, who threw for 3,350 yards as a redshirt freshman last season.

Pruitt, for his part, didn’t seem especially eager to take a walk down memory lane when asked about his former team.

“I worked a year at Florida State and was very thankful for the opportunity,” he said. “It was a great year, we had an opportunity to win the national championship and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do and what they have done.

“But really, right now, we’re kind of focused on us, and that’s what we’ll continue to focus on for the next few weeks.”

Pruitt spared us the “one day at a time” coach-speak, but he’s clearly taking that path as he enters a pivotal year for his career.

He knows he doesn’t need to say anything clever or reinvent the wheel. The talent and the process are all in place at Alabama.

So long as he keeps doing what he has done the past few years and smiles every now and then when the camera finds him, he’ll be in position to go from one of the game’s most successful coordinators to one of the hottest commodities on the head-coaching market.