LOS ANGELES – There has been a lot of discussion about if or when Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith will turn pro. Generally projected as a top-10 NFL draft pick in 2018, it’s widely assumed the junior and Butkus Award recipient will make the jump after the Bulldogs’ season concludes. Less discussed has been the prospect of the Bulldogs losing another extremely valuable member of their nationally ranked defense.
That would be defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Coach Kirby Smart is known as one of college football’s brightest defensive minds. But when the conversation turns to Georgia’s defense and what the Bulldogs have been able to do on that side of the ball this season, he’s very adamant about making sure that praise is not directed to him.
“It’s not my defense,” Smart said earlier this season. “Coach Tucker does a tremendous job with that defense. They play hard for Coach Tucker.”
The Bulldogs are extremely fortunate to have Tucker calling the shots on that side of the ball. Yes, Smart is still very much involved with everything on the defense; he admits to and makes no apologies for being a micromanager when it comes to everything that happens on the field.
But in Tucker, he has a defensive chief who needs no hand holding. When it comes to résumés and experience, there aren’t many coaches in the college game that match what Tucker brings to the defensive meeting room.
This is, after all, a man who knows what it is to sit at the desk of an NFL head coach. Granted, it was in an interim role, but Tucker served as the coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars for the final five games of the 2011 season. The reason he was appointed to that position was he did such a good job running the Jags’ defense. They finished sixth in the league that seasons in yards allowed, giving up 313 yards per game.
Tucker assumed the role of assistant head coach and stayed on another season at Jacksonville under Mike Mularkey. Tucker left and went to the Chicago Bears for what was his third stint as an NFL defensive coordinator. He was let go after the 2014 season and moved on to Alabama, where he worked under Smart as defensive backs coach.
Smart brought Tucker with him to Georgia. Quite literally. The two of them flew together on a private jet from Phoenix, where the Crimson Tide had just won the 2015 national championship, to Athens. Smart immediately made Tucker his defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
And that’s a big deal. Not only does Tucker know what he’s doing when it comes to coordinating defenses and making defensive calls from the sidelines, he’s a vocal and vibrant leader who Georgia’s players would run through a wall for.
“He’s great. He’s amazing. He brings a lot of energy to the field,” said safety J.R. Reed. “He’s a smart guy and knows his football. You can’t do anything but trust in what he’s telling you.”
Said linebacker Smith: “He’s a great guy to play for, just the way he cares about his players and what not. We have a great relationship and it just means a lot. Like, more than football.”
And here’s the thing: Georgia could lose Tucker. The truth is, they probably should lose him.
Not only is Tucker, 45, a bright and highly qualified coach, he’s also an African-American. His race is woefully underrepresented in power positions on both the professional and college level. He should get an opportunity and probably will.
Tennessee already made a run at him. He interviewed for the Vols’ vacant coaching position, which eventually went to former Alabama and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Never mind that Tucker was exponentially more qualified.
“I thought it was a solid process,” Tucker said of the Tennessee interview process. “And it was timely, which was important because we were in the midst of recruiting. It seems like years ago because I’m so focused on what we’re doing now, and that’s where my focus is going to be. I’m not really thinking about anything else going into this game.”
Tucker was on the podium for interviews at The L.A. Hotel Downtown on Friday. It’s funny, because Smart ascribes to Nick Saban’s “one-voice, one-message” policy, which means none of his assistants are available for interviews save for one news conference at the outset of preseason camp. But the Rose Bowl insists that the coordinators of both schools are made available at their pregame events.
Which is great, because both offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and Tucker are as eloquent and personable as one can find in the business. Tucker has a great presence, seems quite comfortable in front of microphones and cameras, and is adept at keeping conversations on message.
He’s also funny.
Tucker announced his presence upon entering the California IV Ballroom for interviews, with Smith and defensive tackle John Atkins dutifully following behind.
“Hello, everybody!” he said, almost shouting. “It’s nice to see you guys every four months.”
Tucker also has fared well in an area that many former NFL coaches struggle with: making the transition to college. Not only is the game different, but it also requires much more travel and being away from home because of recruiting. That’s a job requirement that has chased many an exceptional coach back to the professional ranks.
Tucker not only has adjusted well, but has proved to be one of the Bulldogs’ best recruiters.
“I’ve always had an affinity for the college game because of the relationships with the players and the recruiting aspect,” said Tucker, who coached at Michigan State, LSU and Ohio State for eight years before joining the NFL ranks. “I really, really enjoy just being able to see a player, maybe a sophomore or a junior in high school, recruit them and see them all the way through their senior year in college and on into the NFL. That’s what is really rewarding to me.”
Georgia fans should count themselves fortunate that Tucker has hung around as long as he has. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs are second in the nation in passing yards allowed, third in scoring defense and fourth in total defense.
Smart would like to keep Tucker around, too. He raised his salary to $900,000 a year 10 months ago and rolled over his three-year contract. Another raise is surely in the works whenever this season finally ends.
But Smart is on record saying that he hopes all his coaches experience career advancement and that he expects Tucker will become a head coach again somewhere soon.
Tucker didn’t really tip his hand Friday as to what he thinks the future might hold for him. He stayed on message, of course.
“My focus is here at Georgia and this game,” he said. “My personal aspirations in terms of career, that’s really not part of my focus right now.”
Spoken like a head coach.