clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Much Talent Will Pruitt Need for a Top-10 Defense?

An interesting caveat in Pruitt’s defenses

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more impressive accolades for Jeremy Pruitt was the streak of top-10 defenses he commanded after he became a defensive coordinator full time. It started with 2013 FSU, continued from 2014 to 2015 at Georgia, and concluded at 2016 and 2017 Alabama. This streak obviously did not continue at Tennessee (#72 defense in S&P ratings for 2018), for good reason. The Volunteers were by far the worst situation Pruitt has ever walked into, and Pruitt quickly realized how bad things had gotten under the previous staff.

Now he is on a mission to rebuild the defense with his own guys, while trying to get the most out of players who were there before he arrived. This got us wondering—how long will it be before Tennessee can produce a top-10 defense? Heck, what about a top-25 defense?

We attempted to look at the talent needed for Pruitt to achieve a top-10 defense, and whether or not that is attainable for Tennessee. Our focus is on 2013 FSU, 2014 Georgia, and 2015 Georgia.

Why no Alabama? Because to put it simply, Tennessee cannot replicate that level of recruiting. They can replicate what FSU did in the four years leading up to their national championship (recruiting classes ranked 8, 2, 4, 11) as well as what Georgia did in the five classes of players he coached (11, 7, 9, 12, 8). Also, let’s be honest: a lot of coaches could look elite with Alabama’s talent.

JUCO players are an estimated ranking, based on where their rating would fall in the regular class.

We mainly focused on the starters, but we did include depth as a factor as well. To be regarded as a starter, we looked at official team archives and looked at their games played/games started.

2013 FSU (#2 defense)

Mario Edwards (5-star DT, #2 overall, #1 DT)
Eddie Goldman (5-star DT, #10 overall, #3 DT)
Timmy Jernigan (5-star DT, #11 overall, #2 DT)
Lamarcus Joyner (5-star ATH, #12 overall, #2 ATH)
Jalen Ramsey (5-star CB, #16 overall, #2 CB)
Christian Jones (5-star LB, #21 overall, #2 LB
Ronald Darby (5-star CB, #25 overall, #2 CB)
P.J. Williams (4-star S, #118 overall, #9 S)
Telvin Smith (4-star LB, #151 overall, #11 LB)
Terrance Smith (4-star LB, #275 overall, #19 LB)
Terrance Brooks (3-star CB, #437 overall, #30 CB)

Florida State’s ability to assemble this starting lineup on just two classes inside the top-5 is impressive. That defensive line is incredible, and it’s obvious why Pruitt wanted to completely flip Tennessee’s defensive line as soon as possible.

Seven players ranked in the top-25 might be a bit lofty for Tennessee though, considering they only have one on the roster right now, and he might not be eligible for 2019 (Aubrey Solomon).

2014 Georgia (#10 defense)

Ray Drew (5-star DE, #18 overall, #2 DE)
Jordan Jenkins (5-star DE, #34 overall, #4 DE)
Damian Swann (4-star CB, #51 overall, #2 CB)
Corey Moore (4-star S, #131 overall, #8 S)
Leonard Floyd (4-star LB, #140 overall, #14 LB)
Mike Thornton (4-star DT, #209 overall, #15 DT)
Amarlo Herrera (4-star LB, #226 overall, #9 LB)
Ramik Wilson (3-star LB, #361 overall, #16 LB)
Quincy Mauger (3-star S, #819 overall, #62 S)
Dominick Sanders (3-star S, #822 overall, #68 S)
Aaron Davis (Unrated)

This is more in line with what Tennessee could realistically achieve, talent wise. A few players here were not as good as their rankings (Drew and Moore being the most obvious), but there is only so much a coach can do in one year. This lineup also shows a trend in Pruitt’s defenses: he has a lot of talent at the top, but the number of “middling” players is fairly small.

2015 Georgia (#2 defense)

Trenton Thompson (5-star DT, #1 overall, #1 DT)
Jordan Jenkins (5-star DE, #34 overall, #4 DE)
Malkom Parrish (4-star CB, #71 overall, #8 CB)
Leonard Floyd (4-star LB, #140 overall, #14 LB)
Tim Kimbrough (4-star LB, #163 overall, #5 LB)
Sterling Bailey (4-star DE, #299 overall, #20 DE)
Chris Mayes (3-star DT, #753 overall, #40 DE)
Quincy Mauger (3-star S, #819 overall, #62 S)
Dominick Sanders (3-star S, #822 overall, #68 S)
Jake Ganus (2-star LB, #2766 overall, #227 ATH)
Aaron Davis (Unrated)

Three players in the starting lineup are from a recruiting class Pruitt had a hand in. From the 2014 class, Malkom Parrish and Quincy Mauger are the two contributors in the secondary. From the 2015 class, Trenton Thompson gets the nod. There is also a transfer player with Jake Ganus.

2019 Tennessee

Aubrey Solomon (5-star DT, #23 overall, #2 DT)
Nigel Warrior (4-star S, #57 overall, #4 S)
Alontae Taylor (4-star WR, #122 overall, #21 WR)
Daniel Bituli (4-star LB, #216 overall, #14 LB)
Darrell Taylor (4-star DE, #279 overall, #14 DE)
Bryce Thompson (4-star ATH, #301 overall, #12 ATH)
Jordan Allen (4-star DE, #325 overall, #19 DE)
Emmit Gooden (4-star DT, #351 overall, #27 DT)
Savion Williams (4-star DT, #385 overall, #27 DT)
Shanon Reid (3-star LB, #603 overall, #41 LB)
Trevon Flowers (3-star S, #930 overall, #74 S)

This is our projected starting lineup, to the best of our knowledge. There are still some asterisks, mainly due to the various defensive looks Pruitt utilizes. Players like Baylen Buchanan are left off even though they play a considerable amount.

Note that seven of the players here are from Pruitt’s first two recruiting classes as head coach. That’s significantly more than his Georgia teams or his lone FSU defense. Which probably indicates what he thought of Tennessee’s existing talent on the roster before his arrival.


Pruitt needs elite talent. All coaches do, but every team in this article with a top-10 defense had a collection of top-150 or top-50 players propelling it to success. What’s interesting is how Pruitt does not necessarily need a middle tier of talent. He can get contributions from lower ranked players who turn out to be “gems”. That’s not sarcasm either—there are a lot of players listed above who were ranked fairly low but pursued heavily by Pruitt.

It makes sense when you think about the type of players in the top of recruiting rankings. They’re more likely to be game-changing talents that can require the focus of an opposing team. If you have a collection of them at the top, you have more flexibility with the rest of your lineup.

How has Pruitt done at bringing in blue-chip talent so far?


Aubrey Solomon (5-star DT, #23 overall, #2 DT)
Henry To’oto’o (4-star LB, #44 overall, #3 LB)
J.J. Peterson (4-star LB, #48 overall, #3 LB)
Quavaris Crouch (4-star ATH, #61 overall, #3 LB)
Alontae Taylor (4-star WR, #122 overall, #21 WR)
Greg Emerson (4-star DT, #136 overall, #13 DT)
Jaylen McCollough (4-star S, #156 overall, #14 S)
Tyus Fields (4-star CB, #226 overall, #26 CB)
Bryce Thompson (4-star ATH, #301 overall, #12 ATH)
Roman Harrison (4-star DE, #309 overall, #18 DE)
Jordan Allen (4-star DE, #325 overall, #19 DE)
Emmit Gooden (4-star DT, #351 overall, #27 DT)
Savion Williams (4-star DT, #385 overall, #27 DT)

Overall, quite well. Four players in the top-100, two in the top-150, and another just outside that range. Their 2020 class has two commits in that range, though they are targeting a good amount of players in the top-150 as well. Tyler Baron, Omari Thomas, Jay Hardy, and Reggie Grimes are some realistic options.

That begs the question: what happened with last year? Tennessee still had a fair amount of players who were considered top tier talent. Why was Pruitt unable to produce a top-10 defense with them?

2018 Tennessee (#72 defense)

Kyle Phillips (5-star DE, #36 overall, #4 DE)
Shy Tuttle (4-star DT, #55 overall, #9 DT)
Nigel Warrior (4-star S, #57 overall, #4 S)
Alontae Taylor (4-star WR, #122 overall, #21 WR)
Darrin Kirkland Jr. (4-star LB, #160 overall, #5 LB)
Daniel Bituli (4-star LB, #216 overall, #14 LB)
Micah Abernathy (4-star CB, #233 overall, #25 CB)
Darrell Taylor (4-star DE, #279 overall, #14 DE)
Bryce Thompson (4-star ATH, #301 overall, #12 ATH)
Alexis Johnson (4-star DT, #343 overall, #39 DT)
Baylen Buchanan (3-star CB, #686 overall, #60 CB)

The main problem is with development. When you only coach a player for one year, it’s fair to say that the previous coach had a bigger influence on their future than the new one did. That cuts both ways, whether they get drafted or not.

The number of Georgia players drafted immediately after 2014 include Damian Swann, Amarlo Herrera, and Ramik Wilson. Three out of eleven isn’t spectacular, but it’s a clear sign of development and NFL potential.

In contrast, 2018 Tennessee’s defense did not have a single starter go in the 2019 draft. Phillips and Shuttle were undrafted, Kirkland retired, and Abernathy went undrafted. Imagine if three of those players performed well enough to get drafted. Is it fair to say that Tennessee may have been able to reach a bowl game?

Grantham certainly has his flaws, but he has a high floor as a defensive coordinator. That much was evident at Georgia.


Overall, I would not expect a top-10 defense in 2019. It will be greatly improved, but the fact that the starting lineup is majority comprised of Pruitt players indicates a team that is in another year of rebuilding. This is well known of course. Still, it serves as a reminder that Pruitt will be given four years minimum to show what he can do. He has already grabbed an impressive number of elite or near-elite prospects and is on track to grab even more. Once these first two classes get seasoned, Tennessee’s defense will start looking a lot like Georgia’s and Florida State’s.