ATHENS — Georgia, as the designated home team Saturday, will use the sideline on the West side of the stadium in Jacksonville when it faces Florida. Thus, Mel Tucker should feel right at home.
Tucker, in his first year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, knows Jacksonville and EverBank Field well: He was the Jaguars’ interim head coach for the final five games of the 2011 season. The man he replaced: Jack Del Rio, whose son Luke will be Florida’s starting quarterback on Saturday.
When Tucker was Jacksonville’s interim head coach, he went 2-3, with both wins coming at EverBank Field. Those may be among his best memories among his four in Jacksonville.
It’s a bit short of a triumphant return for Tucker: Georgia’s defense has regressed statistically, as has the secondary, which is Tucker’s unit. Georgia ranks ninth in the SEC in pass defense this year – after ranking first in the nation this year. As for total defense, Georgia ranks fifth in the SEC, after finishing third last year.
Of course it can be argued whether it’s Tucker’s defense, or Kirby Smart’s, or a mix of both. Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator from 2007-15, brought Tucker with him this year. Smart said before the season that Tucker was the play-caller, but at practice and games Smart is very obviously involved.
Smart was asked Tuesday how he’d evaluate Tucker’s performance as coordinator. He demurred.
“I don’t get into evaluations in mid-season,” Smart said. “I don’t think that’s as critical right now. I think the most important thing is our preparation, and that’s what I’m evaluating is are we preparing properly, are we getting the right reps, are we looking at the right things that they’re doing, seeing the right percentages of their personnel groupings. I think that’s the most important part.”
Tucker was not available for interviews, per Smart’s media policy. During his preseason press conference, he came off as deferential and humble, and generally pleased with the talent he inherited.
“I really feel strongly about this: It is not a Mel Tucker defense,” Tucker said in August. “It is the University of Georgia defense, and it’s going to be a team effort. Our foundation is going to be in the best condition, to play with technique and fundamentals, play smart, play fast, play physical and just overall, a brand of relentless defense and relentless football — high velocity, nonstop.
“We want to stop the run, and we want to affect the quarterback with rush and coverage. We want to force takeaways, we want to be great in special situations and make people he can which check don’t give up big plays. In a nutshell, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Actually, Georgia can check off a few of those boxes. The run defense has been solid, ranking third in the SEC. Georgia is also tied for third in the SEC with 15 forced turnovers – though none in the recent loss to Vanderbilt. Just getting one likely would have flipped the result of a game in which Georgia held the Commodores to just 171 yards.
The quality of opponents needs to be considered: Last year the best passing offense Georgia faced, at least statistically, was Alabama, and it was only 62nd nationally. But so far this year Georgia has faced three of the top 25 passing offenses: Ole Miss (17), Missouri (19) and North Carolina (21).
Of course, Tennessee only ranks 77th nationally, and Josh Dobbs had a good day against the Bulldog secondary.
“When you base things on stats, that’s what can mislead you,” Smart said, when asked if he’s seen tangible evidence that the defense has improved. “It’s a tough thing to gauge. I think you have to substantiate it some kind of way, and we’ve tried to do that through less missed tackles. We’ve also had less plays. We didn’t have many plays against Vanderbilt. So less plays should have less missed tackles, less opportunities to tackle.
“So we try to look at it from a statistical standpoint, but at the end of the day it comes with practice, and you have to go by practice. And I feel like because you see practice every day, those defensive players have improved.”