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Brian Howell’s Monday Rewind (Nov. 18, 2019)

Head coach Mel Tucker making impact on Colorado players

BOULDER, CO – NOVEMBER 9, 2019: University of Colorado’s Evan Price is hugged by head coach, Mel Tucker, after the November 9, 2019 game in Boulder. (photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Throughout the offseason, numerous Colorado football players expressed their appreciation for first-year head coach Mel Tucker.

Whether on social media or through interviews, several of the Buffs have continued to talk about Tucker’s positive impact throughout this season.

On Nov. 9, following the Buffs’ 16-13 win against Stanford, CU posted a video of Tucker dancing with players in the locker room. Senior safety Mikial Onu replied with this on Twitter: “the best coach in the nation, it’s a different feeling going out there and playing for him!”

This past week, I interviewed Onu for a feature story that ran in today’s Daily Camera and can be read here. Before wrapping up the interview, I asked him about his tweet and if he could expound on his thoughts on Tucker.

I also had a chance to ask receiver Tony Brown about Tucker and he shared some of the same feelings.

Onu and Brown haven’t played for every head coach in the country, of course, but they’ve both played for three different head coaches during their college careers.

In this edition of the Monday Rewind, we’ll look at the impact Tucker’s had, even if it’s not coming in wins and losses (yet). Also this week:

  • Arlington Hambright making most of one year at CU
  • Stats and quotes of the week
  • Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot

LEADING OFF: Tucker’s popularity

Even if the Buffs (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) become an elite program in the future under Tucker and win a lot more games, I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing the video of Tucker dancing in the locker room after this year’s Stanford win for a long time – at least as long as he’s here.

Tucker isn’t the first coach to do this, of course. It always seems to get national attention when the old guys join in the victory celebration. Even previous CU head coach Mike MacIntyre did that.

There’s no question, however, that there’s something different about Tucker. Talk to just about anyone in the CU athletic department and you’ll get a positive review of his first 11-plus months on the job. It’s the view of the players that matters most, though, and that’s why I asked Onu and Brown about Tucker.

Photo courtesy of Mikial Onu
Graduate transfer safety Mikial Onu, left, poses with Colorado head coach Mel Tucker during a recent visit to Boulder.

Onu played the first two years of his college career at SMU for head coach Chad Morris. After Morris was hired by Arkansas in December of 2017, Sonny Dykes took over and Onu played one year for him. Now, he’s with Tucker.

“Every time someone asks me about coach Tucker, I always say ‘genuine,’” Onu said. “The most genuine coach I’ve ever met. You feel what he’s saying. He’s sometimes more fired up than me to play the game and that just gets me going. Sometimes you can see he’s emotional. He was emotional all Stanford: beginning of the game, halftime, end of the game. That’s just the kind of coach that you want to play for. You want to play for a coach that really cares.

“Anybody that’s been with him pregame and postgame – if you had no other encounter with Coach Tucker, no other opinion – if you just saw him pregame and postgame, you would immediately fall in love with the guy.”

Game day is understandable. A lot of coaches get fired up on game day and caught in the emotion of a big win. What about on the average Thursday when you just want to talk?

“Oh, he’s always available,” Onu said. “(Nebraska week), I was up there, I was going to meet with coach (Bryan) Cook and coach (Tyson) Summers and then I saw (Tucker’s) door was open. He called me in there and we just had a regular chat. That’s stuff that you don’t (normally) do. Like I said, I’ve had three coaches before and sometimes the door is not always open. I’ve had coaches that I never talked to; didn’t have their phone number and I just never talked to them. He has an open door policy if he’s available and somebody you can always going in there and talk to. We were talking about stuff way off the football field. I had some family stuff going on and I talked to him about it and it eventually evolved into like Xs and Os for the week, but he’s someone that’s always open. He’s genuine in everything he does.”

BOULDER, CO – SEPTEMBER 7, 2019: University of Colorado’s head coach, Mel Tucker, hugs Jaren Mangham after the score. Colorado 34-31 OT win over Nebraska on September 7, 2019.(photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Brown, meanwhile, began his career at Texas Tech, playing two seasons for head coach Kliff Kingsbury. In 2017, he transferred to CU and spent two seasons with MacIntyre before this year with Tucker. There was immediate respect earned with Tucker.

“When he came in, he wasn’t sugarcoating anything,” Brown said. “He was just straight up, but we all see him as a player’s coach. That’s what you want – a coach that gets along with his players.”

Being a “players’ coach” doesn’t mean that Tucker is buddy/buddy with the players, though. He’s got a mix of respecting them, having fun with them, but demanding a lot of them.

“He demands a lot,” Brown said.”Obviously, you see where he came from: winning programs. I don’t think you’re pretty much buddy/buddy over there with winning programs, but he gets along with us. He knows when to be serious at certain times. We get to have fun, but when it’s serious, he wants it to be known that it’s time to go, it’s time to work.

“He brings a different culture in. This season just felt different for us.”

Onu said he rediscovered his love of football this year at CU, and he credits Tucker for helping him find it again.

“I’ve had coaches before that you could tell they had one foot in the door and one foot out the door,” Onu said. “With coach Tucker, you can tell he’s all in. There’s nowhere else in the country he’d rather be and that’s something that spreads. … To have a coach like that, a coach that really cares about you, cares about the team and really cares about football in general. The guy just loves football. To coach however long he’s coached, you have to love football. That guy loves football, he loves us and there isn’t a coach I’d rather play for in the country. I do really mean that.

“He’ll talk to us about football, but he’ll keep it real with us and he’ll apply football concepts to real world concepts. You don’t get that everywhere. There’s 130 teams and I bet you a lot of those people will tell you that they don’t have that relationship; they don’t have that kind of guy. Especially for me. I just got here. I’m an older guy and he knows that I’ll be here and be out of here. He owes me nothing. He got me here to help this team and help myself, but he has no responsibility to develop me as a person, no responsibility character wise. But, I can go in there and he’ll treat me like his son, the same way he treats a young guy that he recruited out of high school. That’s something I really appreciate.”

SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY: Hambright’s short time at CU

BOULDER, CO – AUGUST 15, 2019: Arlington Hambright during University of Colorado football practice on August 15, 2019.(Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Like Onu, CU left tackle Arlington Hambright will play just one season with the Buffs. A graduate transfer from Oklahoma State, he’s arrived in the summer and will be gone this next winter.

During his short time with the Buffs, however, Hambright has started every game and is enjoying the move to Boulder.

“It’s a blessing,” Hambright said of playing the full season to this point. “That was definitely one of my goals, to try to stay healthy throughout the whole season. I definitely noticed I played more this year than last year so I’m just blessed for that and thankful.”

Hambright was named Pac-12 offensive lineman a week ago and has been a steady player up front all season.

“I feel like I’ve played pretty good,” he said. “I can always get better, of course. I’m just focusing on the things I don’t do well; focusing on that and just going hard every day with my teammates.”

Hambright is hoping to get a shot at the NFL next season, but hopes to enjoy at least two more games with his teammates – especially those on the line.

“Ever since I got here in the summer, we’ve been working hard, trying to stay together as an (offensive line) unit, trying to get as close as possible and just working every day,” he said. “It’s starting to pay off as a unit. We’re starting to play better together every day.”

BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players

Obviously, we’ll skip this section this week as the Buffs had a bye, although I’m sure there were several players who did well in practice!

THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND

1. The season-ending hip injury to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was unfortunate. All injuries are unfortunate, of course, but Tagovailoa is such a fantastic player and seems to be a great young man and one of the most impactful players in the country. Even more unfortunate considering it was going to be Tagovailoa’s final possession of the game, which the Tide had in control, leading 35-7 late in the first half. I still think Alabama will be fine with Mac Jones at quarterback – because there is just so much talent on the roster – but it’s too bad one of the top players in the country won’t finish the year.

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Utah and Tyler Huntley have been impressive during the past six games.

2. As usual, the vast majority of the national spotlight is on the SEC heavyweights (LSU, Alabama, Georgia) and the traditional powers (Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State), but there aren’t many teams in the country that have been better than Utah the past 6-7 weeks. The Utes ruined their perfect season with a 30-23 loss at USC on Sept. 20, but since then they’ve been downright nasty. Utah has six in a row, by a combined score of 228-54. The only close game in that stretch was a come-from-behind, 33-28 win at Washington, a team that has traditionally had the Utes’ number. Aside from that, the Utes have won by scores of 38-13, 52-7, 21-3, 35-0 and 49-3. This seems to be a team on an absolute mission, and that’s bad news for the Utes’ final two opponents: Arizona and Colorado, who are fighting to avoid the Pac-12 South basement.

3. I can’t remember a quarterback – or a player – regressing like Khalil Tate has. It’s quite remarkable, really, how he has never meshed with coach Kevin Sumlin. Tate was unbelievable in 2017 under coach Rich Rodriguez and came into 2018 as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. Sumlin was hired for the 2018 season and considering his success with dual threat QBs Johnny Manziel and Trevor Knight during his time at Texas A&M, pairing him with Tate seemed to be ideal. Tate had a decent 2018 season throwing the ball, but he battled injuries are hardly ever ran. This year, he’s been extremely average and he’s spending the final half of his senior year splitting time with true freshman Grant Gunnell. Tate led Arizona to a remarkable 4-0 run in the middle of 2017 to clinch bowl eligibility, but the Wildcats are 10-17 since.

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USC head coach Clay Helton has fought through a lot of trials to get the Trojans to a 7-4 record.

4. I’m not sure if USC head coach Clay Helton will survive this season, especially with a new athletic director (Mike Bohn) being hired, but I think the man is a darn good coach. If he gets canned at USC, I can’t imagine he’s out of work long and somebody is going to get a steal if he’s hired. Yeah, I get the argument that he’s struggled to win big with a load of talent and that he’s now just 12-11 since Sam Darnold left. That’s true. But is there another coach in the nation – let alone the Pac-12 – that’s had two different true freshmen starting at QB the past two seasons? Of the 23 games in the post-Darnold era, 21 have been started by true freshmen QBs (JT Daniels last year, Kedon Slovis this year). I think what Helton has done this year is fairly remarkable. He lost Daniels to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 and replaced him with Slovis. Then, Slovis got hurt and third-stringer Matt Fink beat then-No. 10 Utah. USC has been hit hard by injuries not only at QB, but at running back and on defense. On top of all that, Helton has spent much of his tenure at USC working under Lynn Swann, who was athletic director for three  tumultuous seasons. Swann resigned two weeks into the football season. Helton’s been on the hot seat most of the year. Despite all of that, Helton has the Trojans sitting at 7-4 and still in the hunt for the Pac-12 South title, and he’s been a class act through it all. If I was an AD looking to hire a coach, Helton would be at or near the top of my list.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 97

Unassisted tackles for CU linebacker Nate Landman this season. That’s the fifth-best single-season total for a CU player since the Buffs began tracking the stat in the 1980s. He’s got a chance to move into second:

120 – Jordon Dizon, 2007

105 – Greg Biekert, 1990

102 – Ray Cone, 1982

98 – Ryan Sutter, 1997

97 – Landman, 2019

STAT OF THE WEEK, Part II: 2018 vs. 2019

Receiver Laviska Shenault played in nine games last year for the Buffs, and he’s played in nine games this year. A comparison of the two seasons:

2018: 86 catches, 1,011 yards (11.8 average), 6 TD; rushing – 17 att., 115 yards, 5 TD

2019: 45 catches, 621 yards  (13.8 average), 3 TD; rushing – 15 att., 119 yards, 2 TD

MY PAC-12 RANKINGS

How I rank the Pac-12 after Week 12:

1. Oregon Ducks (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12; previous rank: 1): Win out and I think the Ducks reach the College Football Playoff.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Justin Herbert has Oregon rolling heading into the final two games of the regular season.

2. Utah Utes (9-1; 6-1; PR: 2): Win out and I think the Utes have a strong case for the CFP.

3. Washington Huskies (6-4; 3-4; PR: 4): Huskies had a bye to rest for the home stretch.

4. USC Trojans (7-4; 6-2; PR: 5): Impressive win at Cal for the Trojans, who still have South division title hopes.

5. Oregon State Beavers (5-5; 4-3; PR: 7): It’s remarkable that this team sitting here this late into the season. Not sure they win again (they’ve got games at WSU and Oregon), but the Beavers are a great story right now.

6. UCLA Bruins (4-6; 4-3; PR: 3): So much for that win streak. Bruins came crashing down to earth in Salt Lake City.

7. Washington State Cougars (5-5; 2-5; PR: 12): Cougars showed signs of life with an impressive win against Stanford.

8. California Golden Bears (5-5; 2-5; PR: 6): Awful performance at home against USC.

9. Arizona Wildcats (4-6; 2-5; PR: 9): They left Boulder on Oct. 5 in first place in the South. Since then, they are 0-5 and got crushed at Oregon.

10. Colorado Buffaloes (4-6; 2-5; PR: 10): Buffs move up during the bye week thanks to ASU.

11. Arizona State Sun Devils (5-5; 2-5; PR: 8): Herm Edwards’ team takes a four-game losing streak into this week’s matchup with Oregon.

12. Stanford Cardinal (4-6; 3-5; PR: 11): Cardinal outscored 24-0 in the final 19 minutes in Pullman.

MY TOP 25 BALLOT

Here’s the ballot I submitted to the Associated Press for this week’s Top 25:

Air Force, which beat Colorado on Sept. 14, has moved into Brian Howell’s Top 25.

1. LSU

2. Clemson

3. Ohio State

4. Oregon

5. Alabama

6. Utah

7. Georgia

8. Oklahoma

9. Minnesota

10. Penn State

11. Baylor

12. Florida

13. Michigan

14. Cincinnati

15. Notre Dame

16. Memphis

17. Wisconsin

18. Iowa

19. Auburn

20. SMU

21. Boise State

22. Appalachian State

23. Virginia Tech

24. Texas A&M

25. Air Force

I bumped Alabama down to No. 5 and replaced the Tide with Oregon, but not because of the injury to Tua Tagovailoa. In re-evaluating that spot, I see Oregon as a more legitimate choice for the top four, in large part because of the opportunity to win its conference (something that Alabama likely won’t do). I kept Minnesota ahead of Penn State, despite the Gophers losing and Penn State winning – simply because of the fact that they have the same record and Minnesota won the head-to-head matchup. Penn State did drop two spots (from 8 to 10) for me even with a win, but only because I felt Georgia and Oklahoma deserved to jump ahead after both beat top-15 opponents.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

Arlington Hambright on the punishment for offensive linemen if they false start in practice: “Bear crawls. We understand jumping is not cool and we lose yardage on jumping. It kills drives. We understand how serious it is, so we’re really just trying to focus in on that and pay attention on not jumping. Just lock in.” On what’s worse between the bear crawls and the 5-yard penalty on game day: “The 5 yards for sure. Definitely. It can kill a drive.”

Tight end Beau Bisharat on enjoying his senior year: “I’ve really grown to love (tight ends coach Al Pupunu) and coach Tucker. Being under coach Tucker and playing for him, playing for (Pupunu), has absolutely made everything worth it that I struggled with when I was first got here. Because coach Tucker and coach P have been such good coaches, they actually make us want to play for them harder.”

Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers on the transition his players have had to make to his defense: “Sometimes it’s easy to forget, you start talking about having younger players, but we’re still in the young part of the defense, too, in our first year. It’s nice to see that (success against Stanford).”

THIS WEEK: Home finale

CU wraps up the home schedule with a Saturday date with Washington. It’ll be the final time for the seniors to run behind Chip. No offense to Chip, but doesn’t have to same ring to it as running behind Ralphie.