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Jeremy Pruitt finds way to lead Alabama defense

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Alabama needs to contain Deshaun Watson (1:01)

Todd McShay explains that in order for Alabama to have the best chance to win the national title, they need to limit Clemson QB Deshaun Watson's ability to drive the ball downfield. (1:01)

TAMPA, Fla. -- He has been the "other" coordinator at Alabama for much of this season, and that's just fine with Jeremy Pruitt.

Lane Kiffin drew the headlines, the crowds and the controversy until he and Alabama coach Nick Saban parted ways after the win over Washington last week, allowing Kiffin to focus on his Florida Atlantic head coaching gig. And then at Saturday's media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), Kiffin's replacement, former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, was the star of the show and was swarmed by a throng of media.

Meanwhile, there was a smattering of reporters drifting to and from Pruitt's podium. It was a similar scene at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl media day last week.

"Don't mind it a bit," Pruitt said with an easy smile.

That's because the whole rock-star persona that some of the coordinators in today's college football world have adopted doesn't fit Pruitt. He's the son of a legendary high school coach, Dale Pruitt, and will proudly tell you that he cut his teeth coaching high school football.

So while the "Lane Kiffin Reality Show" played out this year in Tuscaloosa and was plenty entertaining at times, Pruitt was able to lay low, coach his guys and put together the kind of dominant defensive unit that is being compared to some of the best Alabama has ever put on the field.

No wonder Saban didn't as much as blink last year when he had to replace Kirby Smart as defensive coordinator. Pruitt was the only choice.

"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 said. "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."

Anybody who has ever been Saban's defensive coordinator will readily tell you that it's Saban's defense. He's in the meetings. He's on the field coaching. He's right there in the middle of putting together the plan each week.

"But the coordinator has to go execute that plan on game day, and that's easier said than done," Saban said. "Jeremy has essentially run our defense on his own at two other places, so you see his handprints in a lot of what we're doing."

Pruitt was the defensive coordinator at Florida State in 2013 when the Seminoles went unbeaten and won a national championship. That unit ranked first nationally in scoring defense (12.1 points per game). His defenses at Georgia in 2014 and 2015 both finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense, and the 2015 unit ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense (16.9 points per game).

So even before Saban called, Pruitt had gone out and established himself as one of the top defensive minds in the game. The fact he was returning to a place where he would always be in Saban's shadow never fazed him.

"The first thing is you need to check your ego at the door," said Pruitt, whose Alabama defense has held nine of its 14 opponents to 10 points or fewer.

"For me, I knew what I was getting into when I came here. For three years, I've been doing it by myself, and we've done it at a pretty high level. To me, it's about growing. It's about who you want to work with, and having the opportunity to come back to Alabama and work with coach Saban was easy for me."

Pruitt, also an excellent recruiter, has never viewed it as Saban looking over his shoulder.

"It's nice to have somebody to lean on," he said. "I'll be the first to tell you that I don't have all the answers. Everything I know about football, I've stolen from somebody. We have not changed what's been done here. I do think probably being a high school coach and my experiences there and the way the game is kind of changing, really sort of going more toward the high school side than it is toward the NFL side right now, has helped me.

"Everybody is going so fast now, and I had a lot of experience with that in high school. You have to structure your calls to make it easier for the kids so there's not nearly as much thinking. Really, Coach Saban and Kirby had already started that way, so it's nothing I necessarily brought here. That's something that has helped the guys a little bit. We have tried to say, 'OK, this is what we're going to call, period, so you guys know. This is what you're going to get.' "

Senior linebacker Reuben Foster smiled when asked what Pruitt has brought to this Alabama defense, which has scored a remarkable 11 touchdowns (in nine different games) this season.

"He brought rage. He brought hype. Every meeting and every practice, he's coming with it," Foster said. "He doesn't hold anything back, so we feel like we can't hold anything back. We're just trying to keep up with our defensive coordinator."

Senior defensive end Jonathan Allen said there was a trust factor with Pruitt, especially with some of the older guys, and that has helped this defense to branch out and grow.

"We're not out there thinking. We're out there attacking, and Coach Pruitt has made it easier to do that with the way he's set everything up," Allen said.

It's no coincidence senior outside linebacker Ryan Anderson has had a career season. He was recruited by Pruitt and leads Alabama with 17 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

"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. "But the big thing he does is that he lets his dogs go hunt. There ain't no holding back."

Much like Saban, Pruitt deflects any talk of where this unit ranks among some of the great defenses in college football over the past few decades. That's because he knows the only thing anybody's going to remember is whether the Tide can slow down Deshaun Watson and Clemson on Monday night.

"The most important thing about this defense is how we finish," Pruitt said. "It doesn't matter what we've done the last 14 games, and our guys understand that."

Spoken like a guy who's content just to be a part of the band.