NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher gave his staff three days off for Christmas break.
FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt spent it watching football with his dad -- Auburn football, of course. Pruitt took game tape of the Tigers home with him, and he and his father, Dale, tried to figure out a way to stop the Tigers in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
Given Pruitt’s history with Alabama, and how similar FSU’s defense is to Alabama’s, watching the Iron Bowl was a good start.
"There’s probably nobody else out there that could say, 'OK, all right, they’ve made this call. That is exactly some calls that we have. This is how they’re going to block it. This is what you’re going to get,'" Pruitt said.
For Pruitt and Fisher, the SEC ties run deep, as Pruitt spent the past three seasons as the secondary coach at Alabama, and Fisher was a former offensive coordinator at LSU. Pruitt was first hired at Alabama as Nick Saban’s director of player personnel. Both of them have shared philosophies that stemmed from their time with Saban, and it’s that chemistry and connection that has helped Florida State’s defense make a seamless transition in the first season under Pruitt. While Fisher has earned the reputation as an offensive mind, he had a clear vision of what he wanted the defense to look like after former coordinator Mark Stoops left to become the head coach at Kentucky.
"This is Jimbo's philosophy and what we're trying to get done," Pruitt said. "He brought me in, and there's a reason, because of the background, and he was familiar with the background. He laid the foundation. He said, this is the players we've got. This is what I want to do. This is how I want to get it done."
In just one season, Pruitt delivered.
Florida State enters Monday’s game with one of the best defenses in the country. The Noles lead the nation in scoring defense (10.7), passing yards allowed (152), pass efficiency defense (90.90), and interceptions (25). All with a first-year coordinator, and a defensive line that had to replace all of its starters from a year ago -- in a new, more complicated scheme, with some players in new positions. From the outside looking in, it was one of the most impressive coaching jobs in the country this season.
"I thought he did a good job," said Miami offensive coordinator James Coley, who went against Stoops’ defense every day in practice last year as FSU’s former offensive coordinator, and was defeated this year by Pruitt’s defense. "He brings a lot of energy to whatever he does. I think those guys are playing for him. They’re feeding off of him. It’s hard to come in there and come into a certain side of the ball where you’ve got a kid like Lamarcus Joyner and now say, 'Hey, you’ve got to listen to me and you’ve got to trust me.' I think he did a great job of earning their trust, and letting them play. Some people get caught up with all these fancy schemes, and if you watch them play, they’re just playing football. That’s why they’re as good as they are on that side of the ball. Those guys are really comfortable in doing what they do."
It didn’t take long.
"He got my attention when he first came back in January just with the kind of heart he has," said Joyner, who moved from safety to cornerback in Pruitt’s scheme. "He's a genuine heart person. He said something to me that I'll never forget in my life. He said, 'You don't get what you want, you get what you earn.' I never heard that said before. He got my attention from Day 1, and to just see the way he loves football, the way he loves coaching and developing young men, it's no better feeling. You know, you have no choice but to draw to him. He's a natural leader, and we respect that."
They also respected where he came from -- Alabama.
"They’ve been winning championships over there, so obviously they have a standard over there that’s working for them," said FSU DB Terrence Brooks. "And I knew he was going to bring a dominating defense over here, also."
He had plenty of talent to work with.
FSU has allowed just five rushing touchdowns in 13 games this season, tied with Iowa for fewest in the nation. FSU’s pass defense has been one of the best in the country, holding opponents to just 9.5 yards per completion -- the lowest in the country. The Seminoles have had 96 negative yardage games, not counting forced turnovers, and the Noles have forced 75 three-and-outs.
"To say how Coach Pruitt came in and put his own stamp on it, it was easy," FSU linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We believed in when he came in, we just listened to him, let him coach us. We didn't worry about the coaches that were here before him even though we've got much respect and love for them, Coach Stoops and Coach [Greg] Hudson. We came in, we believed in what he did and we just believed in the process, and look where he got us."
The same place the program once was before -- at the top.