Rooney: Mel Tucker searching for answers as CU Buffs stumble back to Folsom

Struggling offense adding to first-year coach’s headaches

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Mel Tucker is struggling for answers.

And really, who can blame him? This likely wasn’t what Tucker envisioned by the time he got into the second half of his first season as the head football coach at Colorado.

The Buffaloes are a mess. Certainly not an unfixable mess, but the solution is going to take time. More time than the 2019 season probably is going to allow.

The Buffs stagger home Friday night to face USC, a foe CU has never beaten, as a team still seeking to establish an identity under its first-year head coach. That perhaps is not completely unexpected. It is Tucker’s first collegiate head coaching job, after all, and new staffs go through first-year learning curves right alongside their players.

Yet with CU managing just 13 total points in consecutive lopsided road losses since its last appearance at Folsom, including a feeble 10 points against a Washington State team that had surrendered nearly 50 per game in a three-game losing streak it brought into the showdown-turned-rout, it’s easy to start wondering what will constitute a positive finish for the Buffs. Because if it’s simply wins and losses, chances are the Tucker era will go into its first full offseason with very little momentum.

Head coach Mel Tucker of the ...
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Colorado head football coach Mel Tucker is hoping the Buffs’ offense can get back on track at home against USC Friday night.

The defensive numbers remain unsightly, but the onus isn’t on that side of the ball to keep the Buffs competitive over the season’s final five games. Most fans, and this guy too, assumed that even in bad games for the Buffs in 2019, the offense would come through with at least a few touchdowns. That hasn’t been the case the past few weeks.

The unit with a quarterback in Steven Montez set to break the program’s consecutive starts record and a receiver who garnered preseason All-American accolades in Laviska Shenault has been almost as bad as a defense that doesn’t have enough able bodies to list more than three players total at both cornerback spots on the two-deep depth chart. Two of them, KJ Trujillo and Tarik Luckett, are true freshmen. And Luckett was just moved to corner from receiver in August.

Tucker has watched the strength of his team turn into yet another headache. And in a week that has seen three more veteran players leave the program — safety Aaron Maddox, tight end Darrion Jones, and linebacker Jacob Callier — those headaches are mounting as the Buffs teeter at the edge of a late-season collapse similar to the one that ended the Mike MacIntyre era last year.

The two blowouts left Tucker in a contemplative mood this week. At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, CU’s coach expounded on all corners of his football life, whether he was asked or not. At one point my colleague Brian Howell asked a fairly routine question about getting more work for linebacker Jamar Montgomery, who played 15 snaps at WSU after idling on the sideline since a six-play CU debut in the opener against Colorado State.

As he always does, Tucker answered the question, spending about 30 seconds discussing Montgomery. But he wasn’t done talking. For the next four and a half minutes or so Tucker weaved a winding tale, touching on the transfer portal, introducing “The Ghostbusters” in reference to the low men on the depth chart, sharing the wisdom of former mentor Romeo Crennel, revealing the coaching point made when one CU player forgot his sport coat on the last road trip, and much more before taking the next question.

That’s not meant as a criticism of Tucker. On the contrary, it was interesting to see him open up and speak a little more freely and intimately. Still, it made one wonder what thoughts are flashing behind Tucker’s pensive stare on the heels of back-to-back blowout losses and the continuing roster defections. Regardless how the season plays out, Tucker unquestionably deserves time to continue cultivating his culture change while attempting to stock the roster with the players he targets on the recruiting trail. There just might be a few more headaches before that comes to pass.

Tucker wants the Buffs to be relentless. Yet the last month of his first season might be more about simple survival.