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Mel Tucker set physical standard in first year with CU Buffs

Coaching background shone many times through the season

Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Carson Wells (26) stops UCLA Bruins wide receiver Jaylen Erwin (15) during the first half of a NCAA football game at Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Saturday November 2, 2019. (Photo by Raul Romero Jr, Contributing Photographer)
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He hasn’t been in the Pac-12 very long, but Colorado head football coach Mel Tucker didn’t need much time to identify which team sets the standard of physicality in this conference.

In preparing to face Utah last week, Tucker said, “When you look at our league and people talk about the Pac-12 and talk about who are the most physical teams in the Pac-12, Utah is the first team that comes up.”

For now, anyway.

Raul Romero Jr./For BuffZone,com
Colorado head coach Mel Tucker brought a physical mindset in his first year with the program.

Utah clinched its second consecutive Pac-12 South title with a 45-15 thumping of the Buffs on Saturday, using every bit of that physicality to wear down Tucker’s team.

Tucker envisions the Buffaloes (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12) being that team people talk about in terms of physicality, as he loves hard-nosed, smash-mouth football.

Yet, while the Buffs will be chasing Utah (11-1, 8-1) in the South standings next year, it’s not the Utes’ physical standard that Tucker is aiming for, and he made it clear he didn’t need to see them up close to get an idea of where he wants the Buffs to go.

“Not really,” he said. “I mean, I already know what we gotta do. That’s not the first time I’ve seen that type of football team. As a matter of fact, I’m used to seeing that type of football team week in and week out.”

Let’s not forget Tucker’s background.

Utah sets the standard in part because there isn’t much of a history of physical football in the Pac-12. Washington and Stanford have reputations for toughness, too, and California is getting there, but that’s never been the Pac-12’s identity.

Tucker, meanwhile, grew up in Cleveland and played at Wisconsin under a pretty darn good defensive coach, Barry Alvarez. He spent a decade coaching defense in the NFL and worked three times for Nick Saban, who knows a thing or two about physical football.

In 2002, Tucker was assistant coach for national champion Ohio State, which had the nation’s No. 2 defense. In 2015, he was an assistant under Saban for national champion Alabama, which had the nation’s No. 3 defense.

Tucker spent the previous four seasons in the Southeastern Conference, where toughness is the standard across the board. Six of the top 20 scoring defenses in the country in 2018 were from the SEC, including Georgia, which ranked No. 14 with Tucker as coordinator. His Georgia defense ranked sixth nationally in 2017. In 2016, the SEC had four of the top seven scoring defenses in the country (Washington, which had arguably the best defense of the Pac-12 era in 2016, ranked eighth that year).

Tucker’s vision for CU stems from nearly 30 years of playing or coaching physical defenses – not from watching film of the Utes or anyone else in the Pac-12.

“I knew what to expect and I know where we need to go,” he said after the loss to Utah. “I knew where we needed to go before I got here, in terms of what type of team we need to build, in terms of physicality and how we need to recruit, and what type of players we need to have and what type of structure we need to have, and discipline and culture. That doesn’t have anything to do with Utah.”

Rather than Saturday’s game being a lesson taught by the Utes, it was an example of Tucker’s message getting through to his team. The Buffs were beaten on the scoreboard, but not physically.

“I definitely think that we matched their physicality,” receiver Tony Brown said. “They just made more plays than us. They’re a very good team, but physicality wise, I definitely think we matched them.”

CU’s growth as a physical football team was evident in the second half of the season, as defensive linemen Terrance Lang, Jalen Sami, Janaz Jordan and others got better and helped the Buffs improve against the run. It was evident in the emergence of Akil Jones as an inside linebacker next to Nate Landman, who was already one of the most physical players on the team.

The growth was evident in the Buffs’ offensive line showing some fight – literally at one point against the Utes – in the trenches. It was evident in receivers blocking and defensive backs making big plays against the run and on blitzes.

Star backer Davion Taylor, one of the Buffs’ best all-around defenders, said the one thing that stuck out to him about Tucker over the past year is “his physicality.”

“That’s one thing I think I’ve improved the most, setting the edge and being so physical,” Taylor said. “When I make a tackle, run through a tackle. Just being physical, that’s one thing that I feel like he emphasized compared to all the other coaches I’ve been coached by. He forced it on me. I really didn’t have a choice to be physical.”

Taylor’s career with the Buffs is now over, but those coming back and those joining the herd in the future won’t have a choice, either.

Utah might set the standard right now, but if Tucker has his way, it won’t be long before CU is the team everybody’s talking about as being the most physical in the Pac-12.

“Our culture is starting to take hold with our guys,” Tucker said. “You can see the shift in how we play.”