After more than 20 years of coaching, both in the NFL and at the highest levels of college football, Mel Tucker has a pretty good idea of what he likes to do defensively.
Tucker has also been around long enough to know that tweaking the plan is essential at times.
During his first season as Colorado’s head coach, Tucker and his staff adjusted the plan to fit their players. Now, going into their second year together, he’s looking to do more.
“We did what we thought our players could do,” Tucker of the Buffaloes’ defense in 2019. “We didn’t necessarily do everything that we initially wanted to do, but that’s not important. You have to do what your players can execute.”
With a solid core of players coming back and a strong group of newcomers being added, Tucker is hoping the Buffs (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12 in 2019) will be able to do more next season, including throwing some different looks at the opposition.
“I would anticipate us doing more four-down fronts,” said Tucker, whose defense is a base 3-4. “At Georgia and Alabama, we did both. We did four-down and three-down and we were able to move in and out of them pretty efficiently, based upon … down and distance, type of game, type of offense.
“With this particular group (last season), we kind of evolved to being mostly a three-down type of team, but I do like to be able to mix them. I think we’ll have the players to do that.”
Last year, Tucker and the coaches were getting to know the players and their strengths, but it was a difficult task. CU’s defensive personnel at the start of fall camp in August was dramatically different than in the spring. During the course of the season, injuries and a one-time starter leaving the team changed things even more.
“There were a lot of kids on the (2018) defense that weren’t here this year,” Tucker said. “A lot of guys who were here in the program but had never played before. There was a lot of guys out there that had just never played college football before.
“It was a really challenging season. You come in the first year trying to learn the players … and find out, ‘OK, what can these guys do?’ Not so much focus on what they can’t do, but what can they do? And then trying to fit the scheme around that and developing players as you go, trying to get them better.”
Together with coordinator Tyson Summers and other staff members, Tucker provided input on which players could do what and how to use those skills to make the Buffs successful.
“We were able to build on that and it wasn’t just me,” he said. “It was collective. We’ve got (coaches) with a lot of experience in there.
“Let’s do what this kid can do and try to bring the defense along at the same time and not be held back. It was a great job by Tyson and the staff of figuring that out and never giving up on the defense. They kept hammering away and next thing you know, it’s starting to come around a little bit; you’re starting to play a little defense. That’s really hard to do during the season, especially when we don’t have continuity in the lineup.”
During the first nine games of the season, the Buffs gave up 34.4 points and 480.1 yards per game. In the last three, they allowed an average of 24.0 points and 327.3 yards.
While the Buffs can’t predict attrition or injuries for next season, one area where they are expected to be deeper is on the defensive line, and that will allow Tucker to incorporate more versatility up front.
Starters Mustafa Johnson, Jalen Sami and Terrance Lang are all slated to return. Also expected back is every reserve that saw the field last season – Janaz Jordan, Na’im Rodman, Austin Williams, Lloyd Murray Jr., and Jeremiah Doss – and redshirt freshman Jayden Simon.
Former five-star recruit Antonio Alfano, a transfer from Alabama, leads the group of newcomers, although the freshman needs an NCAA waiver to be eligible for 2020. True freshman Jordan Berry, a 6-foot-2, 330-pounder from Los Angeles, and junior college transfer Justin Jackson are joining the group, too.
“I think we’ll have the guys to be able to do both (three- and four-man fronts) efficiently,” Tucker said.
In addition to line depth, Tucker believes the experience gained by young defensive backs will add to CU’s ability to be versatile on defense.
“I think some of the development that we have in our secondary with some of our young players is really going to help us from a scheme flexibility standpoint going into spring,” he said.
Of course, Tucker and his staff will be ready to adjust if needed, but the foundation is set for the Buffs to have a more diverse scheme on defense next season.