During his three years at Georgia, Mel Tucker has coached one of the best defensive teams in college football.

Although there's been no official announcement or confirmation from Colorado, there were reports this weekend that Tucker, Georgia's defensive coordinator, is soon to be named the head coach of the Buffaloes.

Should Tucker officially take over the Buffs, he won't find the same caliber of athletes he worked with at Georgia, but he will inherit a talented crew of defenders.

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot led a bit of a resurgence of the CU defense this past season, despite the Buffs' final record of 5-7.

The University of Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson, middle, attempts to sack Oregon State’s Jack Colletto during their game on Oct. 27.
The University of Colorado's Mustafa Johnson, middle, attempts to sack Oregon State's Jack Colletto during their game on Oct. 27. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

"We were a lot better," said Eliot, who has been at CU for two seasons. "We made huge strides from year one to year two and I think that's because we had guys that were in the system for two years and we also had some newcomers that were very talented that were major contributors. That's a testament to the defensive staff's recruiting last year."

Defense was CU's trademark during a 10-win season in 2016. It was a group loaded with seniors and led by coordinator Jim Leavitt. Following that season, Leavitt left CU for the same job at Oregon, and the Buffs lost eight starters and three other major contributors.

Eliot, hired nearly two years ago after four seasons at Kentucky, was faced with a rebuilding job in 2017, and it often showed as the defense struggled.


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Last offseason, Eliot and CU rolled the dice on a young defensive line coach, Kwahn Drake, who had no Power 5 conference coaching experience and didn't even play in college. Drake's energy and enthusiasm made an immediate impact and he was arguably CU's best position coach this season.

The Buffs also had a huge offseason in recruiting, as they found defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson, Buff backer Davion Taylor, outside linebacker Alex Tchangam, cornerback Delrick Abrams and safety Aaron Maddox from the junior college ranks. Johnson, Taylor and Abrams were all regular starters, while Maddox and Tchangam came on late in the year.

Johnson was CU's most dominating defensive lineman, with a team-high 17.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.

Taylor, third on the team in tackles and second (behind Johnson) in quarterback pressures, was arguably the most improved player on the entire team from start to finish.

Eliot's recruiting efforts also led to defensive lineman Israel Antwine choosing CU at the 11th hour over his hometown Oklahoma State Cowboys. Antwine started 11 games as a true freshman and teamed with Johnson and senior nose tackle Javier Edwards to form a stout defensive front.

Statistically, the Buffs were fifth in the Pac-12 in yards allowed (380.3 per game). They were ninth in points allowed (27.3), but that number includes all points allowed by CU. Buffs' opponents scored 28 points with CU's offense on the field (on four interception returns for touchdowns), and turnovers by the offense led directly to 23 other points in games during the second half of the season.

One of the more accurate measures of a defense is yards allowed per play, and the Buffs were fourth in the Pac-12, at 5.24. They also tied for fourth with 29 sacks, third in opponent third-down conversion rate (36.36 percent) and fourth in red zone touchdowns allowed (51.16 percent).

"We were one of the top defenses in a lot of categories in the Pac-12 and we were put in a lot of tough situations and our players responded," Eliot said. "I wouldn't say it was me; it was more the players and the entire coaching staff, but I am pleased with the way the defense played this year."

He's also excited to see how the defense will play in 2019.

While the Buffs will lose several key seniors — including linebackers Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis, safeties Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington, and Edwards and Chris Mulumba on the line — there is a lot of talent coming back.

Sophomore Nate Landman is one of the Pac-12's best linebackers and anchors the defense. Akil Jones and Jonathan Van Diest are talented younger players that will fight for playing time next to Landman.

At outside linebacker, Taylor, Carson Wells, Alex Tchangam, Jacob Callier and Nu'umotu Falo all return. Wells had 4.5 sacks and led the team in third-down stops, with 13.

On the line, Johnson, Antwine, Terrance Lang and Lyle Tuiloma — all in the regular rotation this year — are coming back. There are also high hopes for freshman nose tackle Jalen Sami, who missed the season with a knee injury.

The secondary figures to be anchored by Abrams and Chris Miller — CU's best corner before a season-ending injury — with veterans Mehki Blackmon, Ronnie Blackmon, Trey Udoffia and Wigley in the mix. At safety, Aaron Maddox and Hasaan Hypolite have untapped potential.

With the players coming back, Eliot believes the CU defense "has a chance to be dominant next year. I think that there are big things ahead for Colorado's defense."

With family ties to the area, Eliot would love to be a part of that future. If this is the end to his time in Boulder, however, he will at least leave knowing the defense is in good hands.

"I think we've put a lot of hard work into recruiting these defensive players and developing these defensive players," he said. "They're on the cusp of doing something really great."

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.