What Kirby Smart has shown so far in shrewd staff hiring, he's lacked in guileful disguise. The best example of this has been the apparent hiring of Alabama secondary coach Mel Tucker to serve as his defensive coordinator. Tucker has been the most likely hire for weeks now, for a variety of reasons.
For one, he's worked with Smart at Alabama, so there's a familiarity factor. Two, he has defensive coordinator experience, including extensive experience at the NFL level. Three, with Jeremy Pruitt moving to Tuscaloosa and likely coaching defensive backs there, it was looking like Tucker was a man without a post. Finally, Smart and other UGA assistants had murmured vaguely recently about needing to wait to talk to/interview candidates, which meant the choice would likely be someone whose team was still playing on New Year's or in the NFL. Really, unless Smart was going to go with hotshot young Bama assistant Tosh Lupoi or make a run at Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Tucker was the logical choice.
While it's not official, it seems just about everyone who's looking to find out who Smart will hire is coming back to Tucker. Various UGA pay sites have been reporting Tucker as the leading candidate for a while, now the national media are onboard as well.
The "I know" Segment from Wimp Sanderson today: Wimp says: Mel Tucker will be new DC at Georgia barring a snag #Georgia @FootballUGA— JOX Roundtable (@JOXRoundtable) January 7, 2016
#Alabama DB coach Mel Tucker is set to become the new DC on Kirby Smart's staff at #Georgia, source told @FoxSports: https://t.co/7hOI1vYfHX— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 7, 2016
There's a lot to recommend the Tucker hire. For one, he's got a long, distinguished resume which includes stints under seemingly every successful coach in college football over the past decade and a half. Tucker played his college ball at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez, serving as a defensive back. He stayed in Big Ten country for his first job, a graduate assistant post with Nick Saban at Michigan State in 1997. Tucker was also on Saban's staff at LSU in 2000 before joining Jim Tressel at Ohio State in 2001 to coach the Buckeye defensive backs. Tucker eventually became Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, a position which he held through 2005.
2005 saw Tucker move to the NFL for a stint that raised his profile further in the coaching profession. Tucker began as the Cleveland Browns' defensive backs coach. He held that position for three seasons, but was promoted to the defensive coordinator's position in 2008 with the firing of . . . .Todd Grantham. You may recall when Grantham was hired tat Georgia there were rumors that his ouster was largely a political decision. In retrospect those rumors seem completely believable.
Tucker's elevation was not enough to save head coach Romeo Crenel's job because, you know, Cleveland Browns. Tucker left with Crenel and landed in Jacksonville as defensive coordinator under Jack Del Rio (though he didn't actually assume play calling duties for the Jags until 2011. Having Mel Tucker work as your defensive play caller is apparently a hazardous decision, at least in the NFL, as Del Rio was then fired midseason. But Tucker was tabbed as the interim head coach, going 2-3 in that post. He served one season as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for new coach Mike Mularky, before moving to Chicago to serve as defensive coordinator for the Bears. Tucker served in that capacity for two fairly unsuccessful seasons before joining Saban in Tuscaloosa.
If you're scoring at home, that's seven seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator and eight seasons coaching in the college ranks. So Tucker definitely brings a veteran touch to this staff, and a lot of NFL experience. If there's an aspect of his resume I don't like it's that predominance of professional experience. NFL coordinators have a long and illustrious history of failing at implementing their schemes at the college level. I can only hope that Tucker's experience at both levels has made him keenly aware of this problem.
I am heartened by the fact that the Alabama defense was ranked 11th in the nation in interceptions in 2015, picking off 18 passes in 14 games. Ideally, Tucker will be able to marry his college experience with his NFL pedigree to give the Georgia defense the same kind of edge the Alabama defense has enjoyed under Kirby Smart. It's hard to say what kind of a recruiter Tucker will be, since he spent most of the past decade in the NFL. I think it's safe to say his NFL experience should give him credibility with recruits when he talks about what they need to do to make it to the big time.
Again, there's no official word from the University, and I wouldn't necessarily expect one just yet. But if this deal is in fact done, it looks like a hire that could be very good. But there's really no way of knowing whether Tucker's results as a collegiate DC will outpace his sometimes pedestrian NFL results. Bottom line, I'm withholding judgment on this one, but I'm cautiously optimistic that Kirby Smart's found a guy who knows how to oversee a defense and implement the scheme that Smart wants. For now that will have to do.