ATHENS – Kirby Smart gets a lot of credit for what Georgia has been able to do on defense his first two seasons. But Smart passes that credit right on down the line to Mel Tucker.
Tucker is the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and Smart’s right-hand man on that side of the ball. And if there was ever any question about how Smart feels about Tucker, it was eliminated when he made sure Tucker was taken care of following last year’s championship season.
Tucker received the largest raise of any of the coaches on Georgia’s staff — $600,000. Now at $1.5 million a year, he’s one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the country. That also made Tucker one of only three coaches on the UGA’s campus that makes more than $1 million a year in salary. Smart and new men’s basketball coach Tom Crean are the others.
Tucker seemed almost embarrassed about his big salary when asked about it during preseason camp.
“I have never been in it for the money, and I really don’t think about it very much,” Tucker said. “My passion is teaching, coaching and developing players. I enjoy that, and as long as I enjoy doing that, that is as long as I’ll coach.”
There were a lot of reasons Smart offered Tucker such a significant raise. Mainly, Tucker was a hot prospect on the job market after the season. He was approached about a number of jobs in both the NFL and college, and even interviewed for the head coaching job at Tennessee.
The fact is, Tucker has been coaching a long time – 22 years in all — and Georgia is fortunate to have him.
Until recently, a lot of Tucker’s most notable work came the NFL level. The 46-year-old native of Cleveland, Ohio, coached with the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears over nine years through the 2014 season. In that time, he rose from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator to interim head coach (Jaguars, 2012).
After a sudden flameout with the Bears (he was fired), the former Wisconsin defensive back returned to the college game with Nick Saban brought him to Alabama in 2015. It was there that he was united with Smart, who was the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator.
Smart showed such deference to Tucker that he coached linebackers and let Tucker handle the defensive backs, his area of expertise. They obviously worked well together as Bama won the national championship.
And Smart credits Tucker for the exceptional work done by the defense in 2017. The Bulldogs not only went 13-2, won the SEC championship and played for the national title, but they finished among the Top 10 in the nation in almost every defensive category.
On more than one occasion, Smart made a point of saying, “it’s Mel’s defense.”
“Mel’s a great leader,” Smart said. “He commands great respect. Players really follow Mel’s lead. He does a tremendous job of game-planning, X-and-O-ing, calling the game. But more important than that, he’s a very loyal soldier that helps guys out. If guys are struggling or their confidence is struggling, he’s able to go to pep them up. They follow his lead.”
In particular, it’s Tucker’s ability to develop defensive backs that has gained him such acclaim. Junior safety J.R. Reed has gone from being a little-known transfer from Tulsa to an All-SEC candidate and team captain as a junior. And senior cornerback Deandre Baker has risen from being a part-time starter to a potential early-round NFL draft pick.
Tucker is expected to have his hands full in that regard this season as three-fifths of the players who started the majority of the games for the Bulldogs last season have graduated. Georgia has recruited defensive backs intensely, signing 12 in the last two classes. But they all remain young and largely untested.
“The standard of performance hasn’t been changed,” Tucker said. “We’re coaching our players and trying to develop them and teach them in a way that they can reach those standards. We always want to play great defense here regardless of who those players are. There are always going to be changes, there are always going to be new players step in and great players leave so that’s our job to get them ready. That’s why we’ve recruited well and we expect these guys to step in and play great defense for us.”
In addition to Reed at strong safety and Baker at field corner, the Bulldogs will be looking to junior Tyrique McGhee to take on an increased role that will require him to play safety and nickel in addition to his natural position of cornerback. In the meantime, Georgia has recruited 12 defensive backs to UGA the last two season, included highly-touted signees Tyson Campbell and Otis Reese from this year’s class.
Tucker will be tasked with getting those guys ready to play.
“Every time you have a new player you have a new defense so we work really hard to develop all of our guys and get them ready to go,” Tucker said. “I’m excited about what we might be able to do.”
Georgia certainly has recruited well. After losing seven starters off last year’s nationally-renown defense, if Tucker is able get it somewhere close to the level to the level it played at before, that will be a big reason the Bulldogs “own the East.”