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VOL. 133 | NO. 15 | Friday, January 19, 2018


Dave Link

Pruitt’s SEC-Heavy Staff a Recruiting Coup

Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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It was early December, 2012, and Butch Jones stood in front of a podium after being named Tennessee’s 24th football coach.

“I can assure you,” Jones said at his introductory press conference. “We will put together the best football staff in the country. Not just in the Southeastern Conference, but the entire country.”

Fast forward five years, and Jeremy Pruitt, Jones’ successor as UT’s coach, has hired a staff that easily stacks up with Jones’ first. 

Most of Pruitt’s assistants were hired shortly after he was announced as coach Dec. 7. Pruitt, defensive coordinator at Alabama the past two seasons, hired his 10th and final assistant earlier in the week.

Of the 10 assistants on Pruitt’s staff, eight have coached or worked in the SEC, and seven played for SEC teams. Six of Pruitt’s assistants have worked on staff with him.

Several of Pruitt’s hires left top-tier jobs to be on Tennessee’s staff, proof Pruitt can recruit coaches as well as players. They left programs on stable ground for a rebuild at Tennessee. Not an easy sell for Pruitt.

When Jones was hired at Tennessee, he brought in a nucleus of assistants he’d worked with at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Some were with Jones when he won Big East titles (2011 and ’12 at Central Michigan) and Mid-American Conference titles (2007 and ’09 at Cincinnati) as a head coach.

Not to say Jones didn’t have some quality coaches, but the SEC is another level. 

Pruitt played for Alabama. He worked and coached at Alabama under Nick Saban for two different stints, a total of eight seasons. Pruitt coached two seasons under Mark Richt at Georgia. 

In short, Pruitt knows the SEC. And so do most of the assistants he’s hired. Their SEC experience is critical to win in this league. Their SEC ties will be huge in recruiting.

“I’m excited to have all these guys here,” Pruitt said last week. “There’s still some things on the staff that we’ve got to get done, and it will be a work in progress, and it will probably continue all the way through February.”

Pruitt hasn’t announced dates for spring practices, which Tennessee has usually held in March and April. Tennessee starts the 2018 season Sept. 1 against West Virginia in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Pruitt confirmed the roles of all but one of his assistants last week, but was non-committal on Robert Gillespie’s. 

Gillespie coached running backs all five years under Jones, and he was the only holdover from Jones’ staff. 

Most likely, he’ll stay with running backs.

Here’s a look at Pruitt’s first staff at Tennessee:


Pruitt managed to lure Helton away from USC in early December. There, his older brother, Clay, is head coach. Tyson was the quarterbacks coach.

Pruitt’s relationship with Tyler dates back to the early 2000s when Pruitt was an assistant coach at Hoover (Alabama) High and Tyson was an assistant at Memphis and recruiting Hoover players.

Tyson spent two seasons at USC after Clay hired him in January of 2016 from Western Kentucky, where he was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under now-Purdue coach Jeff Brohm.

The former quarterback at Houston (1996-99) started his coaching career in 2000 as a graduate assistant at Hawaii and spent the next three years as Hawaii’s special teams coach. He’s also been an assistant at Memphis (2004-06, tight ends/special teams), UAB (2007-12, quarterbacks/running backs), and Cincinnati (2013, tight ends/special teams).

Helton’s career took off at Western Kentucky in the two seasons (2014-15), where his offenses were ranked in the top-10 nationally in several categories. 

While at USC, Tyson Helton coached star quarterback Sam Darnold, projected to be one of the top picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. Helton has never worked on a staff with Pruitt.


If one coach on Butch Jones’ staff was to be retained, Gillespie was the most obvious choice. He clearly was the best assistant under Jones. He coached New Orleans Saints star rookie Alvin Kamara in 2016 and 2018 NFL Draft enrollee John Kelly last season.

Gillespie was hired to be part of Jones’ first staff at Tennessee in 2013, leaving West Virginia after two seasons as running backs coach for the same position in Knoxville.

The Hattiesburg, Mississippi, native played running back at Florida for four years (1998-01) under Steve Spurrier and was one of the top pass-catching backs in Gators’ history. After a short pro career, Gillespie became a football graduate assistant at South Carolina in 2005 and spent the next three years there as running backs coach. He then went to West Virginia for two seasons.

Like Helton, Gillespie hasn’t worked on staff with Pruitt.


Pruitt managed to pull Friend away from Colorado State, where he was offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.

Friend was the Rams’ offensive coordinator for four seasons and was the first assistant hired (Dec. 24, 2014) on head coach Mike Bobo’s inaugural staff. Colorado State has reached three consecutive bowl games, thanks in large part to an explosive offense that had one of the best seasons in school history in 2016.

Before his stint at Colorado State, Friend spent the previous four seasons (2010-13) at Georgia, where he was offensive line coach and running game coordinator in 2013; Pruitt was on the same staff with Friend for three seasons (2010-12) with Bobo as offensive coordinator. When Bobo was hired at Colorado State, Friend went with him.

Friend has also been offensive line coach at UAB (2007-10) and Gardner-Webb (2005-06) and was a graduate assistant at Georgia (2003-04). He started his coaching career at West Alabama (2001) and spent a year at Tuscaloosa (Alabama) Central High.

The former high school All-American offensive lineman from Philadelphia, Mississippi, was a four-year starting guard and two-time SEC player at Alabama from 1993-96.


Pruitt hired Sherrer away from Georgia, where he was outside linebackers coach.

Just days after they coached against each other in this year’s national championship game in Atlanta, won by Alabama, Pruitt and Sherrer were quickly reunited at Rocky Top.

Sherrer played tight end at Alabama (1993-95) and was a teammate of Pruitt, who played defensive back for the Crimson Tide. 

They also worked on the same staffs together at Hoover High School and Alabama.

In 2013, Sherrer left a job as Alabama’s director of player development to become South Alabama’s defensive coordinator, and a year later joined Mark Richt’s staff at Georgia as outside linebackers coach. When Georgia fired Richt, Sherrer was retained by new coach Kirby Smart.

After his playing career at Alabama, Sherrer was a graduate assistant there for three years (1998-2000) before a stint as high school assistant at Spain Park High in Birmingham (2001-04) and Hoover High (2005-09). He spent the next three years as Alabama’s director of player development.


Niedermeyer was assistant director of personnel operations during Alabama’s recent run to the CFP national championship.

After his playing career at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Niedermeyer became a graduate assistant at Pine Bluff (2012-13) and was hired as a quality controls coach at Miami in 2013. 

He was wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator at East Texas Baptist University for three seasons (2014-16) and was hired by Alabama in 2017.

Last season was Niedermeyer’s only one working with Pruitt. 


Johnson, receivers coach at Memphis the past two seasons, was the final assistant hired by Pruitt, according to multiple reports last weekend.

The New Orleans native was a star receiver at John F. Kennedy High and played college ball at Nicholls State from 1991-93. 

He started his coaching career at his high school alma mater, and also was offensive coordinator and receivers/tight ends coach at O. Perry Walker High from 2000-04.

His first college stop was at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he coached receivers/tight ends/special teams and was recruiting coordinator from 2005-08. 

He returned to high schools from 2009-11 as head coach/offensive coordinator at St. Augustine High in New Orleans, where he coached former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu.

Johnson spent 2012-15 as Tulane’s running backs and tight ends coach, and he joined the Memphis staff in 2016. He’s never worked on staff with Pruitt.


Rocker, the former star defensive tackle at Auburn in the late 1980s, was Richt’s defensive line coach and associate head coach from 2014-16, but he didn’t coach this past season. 

He’s got high school, SEC, and NFL experience.

After winning the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Trophy as an Auburn senior in 1998, Rocker played two years for the Washington Redskins (1989-90). 

He got a job as defensive coordinator at Auburn High for two seasons (1992-93) before landing a college job at West Alabama (1994-95).

Rocker then climbed up the ladder to the SEC as a defensive line coach: from Troy State (1997-01), to Cincinnati (2002), Arkansas (2003-07), Mississippi (2008), and Auburn (2009-10). He was the Tennessee Titans’ defensive line coach for three seasons (2011-13) before being hired by Richt at Georgia.

Pruitt coached alongside Rocker at Georgia for two seasons (2014-15) when Pruitt was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.


Rumph, defensive coordinator at Florida the past two seasons, gives the Vols another assistant with extensive SEC experience, and he knows Pruitt well. He was on the same defensive staff with Pruitt at Alabama for two seasons (2011-12) when Rumph was defensive line coach and Pruitt was coaching defensive backs. Their offices were next to each other in Tuscaloosa.

A native of Orangeburg, South Carolina, Rumph played at Calhoun County High School (South Carolina) and signed with South Carolina, where he played linebacker for four years (1991-94). 

He spent five seasons (1997-2001) as head coach at Calhoun County High before entering the college ranks as defensive backs coach at South Carolina State in 2002.

His other stops were at Memphis (2003-05, outside linebackers), Clemson (2006-10, defensive line/ends), Alabama (2011-13, defensive line) and Texas (2014, assistant head coach of defense/defensive line).

After a year as Florida’s defensive line coach in 2016, Rumph was promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2017 while also coaching the defensive line.


Fair makes his return to his alma mater, Tennessee, where he was an All-SEC kick returner and cornerback in 1996 and ’97 and was a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 1998.

After six seasons in the NFL, Fair spent three years as an assistant at Phoenix (Arizona) Community College. 

He spent two seasons (2012-13) as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, and he spent the past three seasons as defensive backs coach on staff with Friend at Colorado State.

Fair is a popular hire for Tennessee fans. Not only is Fair a VFL (Vol for Life), he became a popular radio personality for a couple of years while co-hosting “The Drive.”


Kelly spent the previous six seasons at Florida State, the past five as the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator. Pruitt was defensive coordinator for one year – 2013 – at Florida State when Kelly was there as special teams coordinator; the Seminoles won the national championship that year.

Prior to Florida State, Kelly was at Georgia Tech for seven seasons as special teams’ coordinator, cornerbacks coach, defensive backs coach, and interim defensive coordinator (2012). He also was in the college ranks at Nicholls State (2002-05), Henderson State (1999), Jacksonville State (1994-98), and Auburn (1993).

His coaching career began at Tuscaloosa Central where he was an assistant for three years (1990-92). 

Kelly played defensive back for four years at Auburn (1986-89).

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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