MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Mel Tucker has ended up having a pretty good first season as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and secondary coach: The defense is ranked 16th nationally in total yards allowed, and the pass defense is 18th. That’s down from seventh in total defense and first in pass defense last year, though in Tucker’s defense the front seven was almost entirely new, and very young.
It had been more than four months since the public heard from Tucker, but on Tuesday he spoke at a press conference in advance of the Liberty Bowl. His comments will be fleshed out in more stories soon, but here are some highlights:
- On Georgia’s defensive improvement through the season: “We’re still a work in progress. Our guys played hard. They learned how to run towards the ball, and learned how to take the ball away. They play together. We’ve grown as a defense over the season. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
- What really improved? “Just playing together, and being sound fundamentally. And understanding, Hey you can’t give up big plays if you want to be a great defense. And so just being sound and solid, playing together, communication, understanding the scheme. The guys have grown, and so it’s a really fun group to coach.”
- Any players taking advantage of bowl practice: “Well you know a lot of our young guys got a lot of work when we were back home, and we did a lot of two-spot work, and got a lot of reps. And so we’re able to develop some of our younger players. But once we honed in on the TCU gameplan I think all of our guys have stepped up to the challenge. There’s a certain way we want to practice, a certain way we want to prepare, and our guys understand that, and it’s been focused. I’ve seen improvement across the board.”
- What has Dom Sanders meant to the defense: “Yeah, Dom’s a fun guy to coach. He shows up every day, he’s the same guy, he’s very consistent. He loves to practice. He loves to compete. He loves to make plays on the ball, he’s very instinctive, and he has good energy. And so he’s one of our leaders, he’s played a lot of football for us. It’s just a privledge to coach guys like that.”
- On Bellamy and Carter announcing their return next year: “I tell you what, we get a lot of leadership from guys on our defense, from some of our younger guys and our older guys. Guys like John Atkins, he’s in the middle, an anchor in our front. He does a lot of dirty work for us. It doesn’t always show up in the stats but John-John does a great job for us, playing the blocks up front and making sure we’re stout down the middle. Whether it’s a guy like that up front or guys at linebacker, in the secondary, we talk about you can lead from any position. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young guy or an older guy. Everybody is going to step up and lead in their own way at any point. That’s what we look for our guys to do.”
- The red zone defensive struggles: “It’s been a focus for us. Obviously we need to execute better in the red zone. They (TCU) do a great job in the game planning so that’s been a major point for us. We’ve worked on red zone almost every day. Why? – Just executing and playing together. You can’t really point to just one thing, whether it’s the run game or pass defense. We just need to improve our execution across the board.
- Deandre Baker going into the lineup: “We told our guys from the beginning, we’re going to need everybody to be ready to play …. Baker’s done that for us. We play 18, 19 players a game, sometimes in our rotations in the back end, and up front. We don’t want to give up big plays, and you can’t be a great defense if we give up explosive plays in the back end.”
- On cornerback Tyrique McGhee’s injury status: “I can’t say much about it. He has been a guy that hasa gotten better throughout the year. He’s a young guy. He pays attention.”
- Mecole Hardman’s development and future: “Meco’s one of those guys that’s gotten better in the bowl practices. He’s an excellent athlete, and he really enjoys competing in practice. I think he’s learning what we need him to do. And I think his future is very bright here.”
- On scheming for TCU: ““I tell you what, pretty much every team we played this year has been no huddle and up-tempo. That’s mostly what you see nowadays. You don’t see too many offenses huddling up and lining up in two-back, I-pro, slot and run the football — pro-style, play action, we don’t really see a lot of that. So it’s been like this since week one for us. Guys going up-tempo, fast-paced, spread out all over the place and just try to run as many plays as they can. That’s what we’ve seen on them.”
- The dynamic between Tucker and Kirby Smart: “It’s great. He’s been doing this a long time and so have I. We see football the same way. He’s very, very passionate about the game, hyper-competitive and so am I. So I think it’s a really good relationship for our players because we work hand-in-hand, day in and day out to get the most out of our players. We have an excellent coaching staff and cooperation is the key. That’s what we want to do each and every day.”
- When a media member said he ate too much over the holidays: “Haven’t we all. I’m going to have to go on a workout program here when we get back.”