Hired in December by first-year Colorado head football coach Mel Tucker to coordinate the Buffaloes defense, Tyson Summers went into the job like just about every other position he’s had in coaching.
The new job, ideally, is one that lasts a while and allows Summers and his family to get settled. The reality of the profession, however, is that Summers can’t get too comfortable.
“I don’t think you can ever look at a place and not fully intend to be there for a long time,” he said, “and I don’t think you can ever go into it and say, ‘Well, it’s OK to accept (mediocrity) because we’re going to be really good in three years.’”
Three years is an eternity in the world of coaching – particularly for assistants. This is Summers’ 11th stop along his coaching journey; seven of the previous 10 lasted one season. None of CU’s previous four defensive coordinators got a third season in Boulder – whether they left by choice or not.
Summers could be at CU for several years, but forget the notion of him coming in with a two- or three-year plan to get his defense rolling.
“You’ve got one year,” inside linebackers coach Ross Els said of the pressure on coaches. “I don’t care how long the contract is; you have one season to get it right and if you don’t do it well and you get to stick around, you’re lucky. There’s a sense of urgency in our profession, no doubt.”
Job security isn’t the main motivation for Summers, however. It’s competitiveness and a desire to succeed that drives him.
“The people who are usually really good at what they do are the people that are self motivated and the people that are able to do the best job of leading other people along the way,” Summers said. “Hopefully our results at the end of the year will be able to show we were able to do that.”
Summers is running a defense for the first time since 2015 at Colorado State. He left the Rams after that season to take the head coaching job at Georgia Southern, but he was fired after a 0-6 start to his second season. He spent last season as a quality control analyst at Georgia – working with Tucker, who was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator.
That relationship with Tucker paved the way for Summers to land at CU.
“This opportunity and the leadership position at the University of Colorado was unbelievable,” Summers said. “It’s also really cool to be in a place where you have people that you really, really care about and people that you trust. The relationship and trust factor that I feel like coach Tucker and I have, that makes it really easy for us to communicate and really easy to be on the same page and be able to show a lot of oneness when we get on the field.”
A long-time defensive coach, Tucker is sure to be involved on that side of the ball, but Summers has already earned respect from players and coaches for the job he’s done.
“I love him. I think the whole defense loves him,” inside linebacker Jonathan Van Diest said. “He’s rah-rah, rowdy and brings a lot of energy and we get behind that. It’s not that he has to be the motivator for us, but you want to play for him. Also he pushes you to play for each other and step up.”
Summers has also rallied a group of assistants that have never worked together.
Els is in third year at CU, but spent the last two in a different defensive system. Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh coached the last two years at Maryland. Outside linebackers coach Brian Michalowski and cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman both worked alongside Summers as defensive analysts last year at Georgia, but they’ve never worked with him as on-field coaches.
“It’s hard when you take guys from a system, the Georgia system, and then bring in outsiders, whether it’s Brumbaugh or myself or whoever,” said Els, who has been a defensive coordinator at three previous stops. “We all have ways that we want to do it. But, Tyson is phenomenal. Tyson will listen to you and then go and make a decision. It’s nice to have coach Tucker around, too, who has been running this package for a long time.
“We have a lot of fun in our room and it’s a smart group of guys who work hard.”
Hard work is being demanded of the players, as well, and they’ve responded.
“Our expectations are to raise the bar each day, to reset a standard, not only on our defense but our program and what our expectations are,” Summers said. “I think they’re trying to do that. I think they’re trying to take coaching, which is the No. 1 thing.
“They’ve really bought into the scheme of the defense and the expectations when it comes to how we want to play and prepare each week.”
The standard on defense is to be among the best in the Pac-12, if not the country. Recent Pac-12 history shows that the top defensive teams often play in the conference title game, or at least in bowl games.
To get there, Summers will lean on players such as defensive end Mustafa Johnson and linebacker Nate Landman; both are among the best in the Pac-12 at their positions. Sophomore outside linebacker Carson Wells shows star potential; senior cornerback Delrick Abrams Jr. has intangibles that impress Summers; and graduate transfer safety Mikial Onu brings loads of starting experience, even if it came at SMU and not CU.
Summers’ biggest challenge will be getting others up to speed. Only two of the nine scholarship defensive linemen have played a snap at CU. Landman is the only inside linebacker with significant Division I experience. The secondary, as a whole, lacks experience and depth.
“The honest side of that is that we lack a lot of experience,” Summers said. “You’re talking about three to five guys with significant playing time last year that are really coming back.”
That makes Summers’ installation of the playbook only part of the job.
“You’re having to teach them and train them in a lot of little things along the way,” he said. “They’ve never been to away games, never flown on a flight before and done a pregame meal. There’s a lot of additional coaching that goes on that really doesn’t have as much to do with the things that are on the field.”
Of course, there is plenty of work to be done on the field, as Summers installs a defense that is new to all the players. It’s a more complicated defense with a lot of verbiage, checks and adjustments. The defense is designed for CU to be multiple up front and versatile with its coverages and pass rush packages. There is also likely be more players involved in the rotation than in the past.
“I think you’ll see that we’ll be much more multiple than what they were last year and hopefully be able to have some answers built into our package that they didn’t necessarily have last year,” Summers said. “I do think you’ll see a much more aggressive and attacking defense, and I would expect to see a bit more pressure.”
Given the inexperience, it may realistically be a year or two before the Buffs fully mature on defense, but Summers isn’t lowering the bar. The Buffs want to win now, and Summers is aiming to make sure his group puts them in position to do just that.
“(Winning) is really the only thing we’re focused on,” he said. “We know there are things that are going to make us a lot better defense. Obviously that’s takeaways, third down defense and the red (zone) areas. Knowing those three things can really put us over the top in finishing where we need to be: giving our offense and our entire team a good chance to be able to win games.”