Mel Tucker escaping shadows of Kirby Smart, Todd Grantham

Mel Tucker-Georgia football-defensive coach-roquan smith
Mel Tucker at practice this week in Memphis. (STEVEN COLQUITT/UGA).

ATHENS – Mel Tucker’s office in the Georgia football building is the same one that Todd Grantham occupied for four years. And it’s not the first time that’s happened.

A decade ago Grantham was let go after three years as the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. The Browns then tabbed Grantham’s young secondary coach as their new coordinator: Tucker.

Plenty has changed since then, other than the Browns still being a woeful franchise, and on Saturday the two men will be key coaches in a match-up of ranked teams: Tucker is No. 11 Georgia’s defensive coordinator and Grantham coaches the defense for No. 17 Mississippi State.

They have different personalities: Grantham was fiery, while Tucker is less so. But there is a connective tissue in former NFL coaches, it seems: The reporters who covered both hear the same phrases about football and reluctance to give too much away. And one Georgia player who was reared in NFL jargon laughs when he hears his defensive coordinator talk.

“It’s actually crazy,” said Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed, whose father Jake Reed was an NFL receiver. “Some of the stuff my Dad says coach Tuck says, and I just laugh to myself. People are like, ‘What are you laughing about?’”

DIFFERING DYNAMICS AT GEORGIA

There are three current Georgia players who were around in 2013, Grantham’s last year at Georgia. Davin Bellamy, John Atkins and Aaron Davis were not available to the media this week. But senior Lorenzo Carter, who was recruited by Grantham before the coach left for Louisville, had warm memories of him.

“I like coach Grantham,” Carter said. “He’s an electric guy. A lot of energy. He values pass-rushing. I’m sure they’re going to bring that.”

Todd Grantham as Cleveland’s defensive coordinator in 2007. (Getty Images)

Grantham is in his first year at Mississippi State, and – yes it’s very early – has his defense ranked fourth in the nation in least yards allowed. That follows a run at Louisville in which Grantham’s defenses were in the top 20 each year.

Tucker, meanwhile, is in his second year at Georgia, where he replaced Jeremy Pruitt. (Who is now the defensive coordinator at Alabama, replacing Kirby Smart, now Georgia’s head coach. SEC coaching is a well-paying small world)

There are big differences in the dynamics between Grantham’s four-year tenure at Georgia and Tucker now. For one, Grantham had total autonomy over the defense, brought in by offense-oriented head coach Mark Richt to replace a foundering unit. It was an up-and-down four years for Grantham, with an elite defense in 2011, but one that struggled in his final year.

Tucker came to work under Smart, who remained very hands-on with the defense. That led to an easy perception that this wasn’t really Tucker’s defense. Whoever’s defense it was, Georgia finished 16th nationally last year, fourth in the SEC – and two behind Grantham’s at Louisville.

But this year the signs are that this is Tucker’s defense. After the Notre Dame game, when the defense basically won the game, Smart heaped praise on Tucker’s calls and scheme for the game. Tucker dialed up blitzes at key times and Georgia’s defense kept fast Notre dame QB Brandon Wimbush in the pocket.

That same strategy figures to be in effect against Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald.

“This is his defense. Coach Tucker is the DC,” Reed said. “Coach Tucker brings an NFL type feel to the defense. He coached 10 years in the league.”

Mel Tucker as a Cleveland Browns assistant in 2006. (Getty Images)

And he’s brought some of that philosophy to Georgia, such as, according to Carter, more time watching film and lifting weights in-season in order to maintain strength.

“I love Coach Tucker,” Carter said. “He brings a lot of knowledge from the places he’s been in the past when he was coaching in the NFL, so he does a great job making sure that we go about things the way the pro’s do.”

Grantham was the Browns’ DC from 2005-07. He was let go and went to Dallas, where he spent two years before going to Georgia.

Tucker was the Browns’ defensive coordinator in 2008, after spending the previous three years as the Browns’ secondary coach. He went on to a four-year stint as Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator, which included four games as interim head coach, and he was Chicago’s DC from 2013-14. From there he went to Alabama as secondary coach, where he began working with Smart.

And now here he is, starting to make a name for himself in the SEC.

“Obviously he’s doing an amazing job because our defense is the glue right now,” senior tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “They’re doing everything they can, and they’re just clicking.”

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