ATHENS — Mel Tucker offers a lot for Georgia. A wealth of experience at the NFL level, both as a player and as a coach, which will help in coaching and recruiting. A good working relationship with Kirby Smart. And widespread respect as a secondary coach.
So Georgia fans have plenty to be excited about as Tucker comes to Athens as defensive coordinator. They also have two very big reasons to be wary.
One is named Todd Grantham. The other is Brian Schottenheimer.
You know where we’re going with this. Schottenheimer came to Georgia last year after nine years as an NFL offensive coordinator. The red flags were there, as Schottenheimer’s offenses had usually ranked in the lower half of the NFL. But head coach Mark Richt pushed those concerns aside.
Schottenheimer’s tenure lasted only one season. Less than one, actually, since he didn’t last through the bowl. Georgia’s offense plummeted from 30th to 85th this season, as Schottenheimer’s NFL experience and know-how didn’t translate to the SEC.
Then there was Grantham, who was hired as Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2010 after 11 years in the NFL, including three as the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. Grantham was fired after the 2007 season, when the Browns ranked 30th out of 32 teams in the league in total yards allowed. He then went to become a position coach in Dallas, where Richt plucked him away.
It wasn’t all bad with Grantham at Georgia, especially the 2011 season, and the latter half of the next year. But things spiraled in 2013, as Grantham refused to simplify his defensive scheme for young players, and Georgia’s defense ranked 45th nationally. When Louisville came calling after the season, Grantham grabbed the life-line, and Richt grabbed Jeremy Pruitt – whose only NFL experience was watching it on TV. His two years in Georgia, at least on the field, were pretty successful.
Now Pruitt will be replaced by Tucker, who spent six years as a defensive coordinator at the NFL, for three different teams. He did have one very good season, guiding Jacksonville to the sixth-best defense in the NFL in 2011. But over the next three seasons, one with Jacksonville and the last two with Chicago, Tucker’s defenses finished 30th in the NFL. He was let go by the Bears after the 2014 season, then hired by Saban to run the secondary.
This isn’t to say NFL experience is a negative. It’s just that it doesn’t automatically translate to being easier a level down, as some other examples can attest. LSU is still waiting for Cam Cameron, a former NFL head coach and longtime offensive coordinator, to light up the scoreboard after three years running the offense in Baton Rouge.
No, Georgia’s defense isn’t doomed now that it’s gone this route again. Tucker, unlike Grantham and Schottenheimer, has had a year in college to get re-acclimated, and perhaps a bit humbled, having gone from a coordinator at the highest level to a position coach a level down. (Albeit at Alabama, the closest thing to a pro team there is in college football.)
Tucker might very well come to Athens more aware of what he’s getting into than the past two NFL guys. Grantham had the air of someone who thought he had all the answers because he’d been in the NFL for so long. Schottenheimer was more humble, he just was too slow to adapt, which was a failing of his in the pros as well.
There’s also the fact that Smart, given his defensive background, will likely have a heavy role in the defense. Of course Schottenheimer had Richt’s offensive background to lean on too, and that didn’t save things.
When Grantham was fired by Cleveland after the 2007 season, it was written that the decision was a surprise, since his defense had shown improvement down the stretch. But ultimately the poor overall numbers doomed Grantham, and the Browns elected to go another way. They ended up promoting from within, giving the secondary coach his first crack at being a coordinator.
The name of Grantham’s replacement in Cleveland?