NEWPORT BEACH (AP) — Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense have gotten most of the attention leading up to the BCS championship game.
The Seminoles’ defense is just as good — or even better.
And the defense has done it with a new scheme and a new coordinator who was a high school assistant only seven years ago.
Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has turned the Seminoles into the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation despite a roster that lost seven defenders to the NFL draft in April.
The defense will get its moment in the spotlight Monday night when No. 1 Florida State faces No. 2 Auburn.
“Jeremy Pruitt doing a great job at Florida State is no surprise to me at all,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who hired Pruitt as director of player development in 2007. “He did a fantastic job here for us, regardless of what his role was. Did a great job of coaching our secondary. I certainly felt like because he had been a coordinator in high school, he had a really good, sort of, big-picture view of things, that he would make a really, really good coordinator. He certainly understood our system very well and would be able to apply our system here, and actually thought he could do that for us here.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s doing extremely well there with their defensive players because he did a fantastic job here.”
Pruitt was charged with installing a complicated hybrid 3-4 scheme to replace the 4-3 run by former coordinator Mark Stoops. It’s an aggressive, blitzing system that can send anyone after the quarterback. The team has 33 sacks, but cornerback Lamarcus Joyner leads the team with 5.0. The Seminoles lead the nation with 25 interceptions from 16 different players.
Defenders love the scheme because it allows anyone to make plays.
“I like the aggressiveness of it,” defensive end Christian Jones said. “We blitz a lot. We show a lot of blitz and then we drop. If you don’t know too much about our defense, it can really mess you up.”
Linebacker Telvin Smith added: “The dynamic features of it that so many times and so many different situations, each guy can come off and make a play.”
It makes sense that the Florida State secondary would excel considering Pruitt learned from Saban, widely considered the best secondary coach in college football. That’s why there wasn’t a ton of risk moving Pruitt from director of player development to defensive backs coach after three seasons. That unit was Saban’s specialty as Pruitt was still better known for his recruiting prowess.
“When I was offered the job, I just wanted to be a part of an organization,” Pruitt said. “I wanted to go work for Coach Saban. I wanted to be one of Coach Saban’s guys, for a guy that was a high school coach. It’s been eight years ago I’m lining off fields, I’m washing practice uniforms, I’m going to pick guys up. … To sit here and say I’m going to be here today, no, I didn’t dream of it.”
Pruitt, a son of a football coach, credits those days coaching Hoover High School in Alabama for his rise. He said high school coaches are the best teachers because they have to mold a player from scratch. In a sense, Pruitt had to do the same to fit a roster recruited for a 4-3 to play 3-4. Florida State plays a lot of downs with four linemen, but that’s the complexity of the system along with having versatile players like Jones, Mario Edwards Jr., Smith, Jalen Ramsey and Joyner. The call isn’t necessarily dictated by personnel — which should come in handy against a fast-paced Auburn team.
Things didn’t really begin to gel for the Seminoles until after the 48-34 win against Boston College when Jones moved to defensive end and Joyner moved to nickelback. Safety Terrence Brooks said the complexity of the system was difficult to grasp, but Pruitt had a way of explaining it.
“Just seeing how much he broke it down and really made us understand just why we were doing each position or why we were doing certain things,” Brooks said. “It was just amazing to see how much he can, I couldn’t even explain it.
“They really break it down, every play they do, tendencies, where people line up. It’s really crazy, but just buying into it and just seeing how many plays we were making in practice just by doing his defense. It was amazing. That right there made us all buy in so fast. It actually made me want to learn it more.”
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher interviewed Pruitt for four hours when he was going through candidates. He knew Pruitt was his man after 30 minutes.
“After I met him it was a natural (fit),” Fisher “I felt very good going in and felt tremendously better going out. Obviously it’s been a good choice.”
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