Alabama football brought in three highly-profiled individuals in the last two years. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was the most attractive name, but under the radar lies Mel Tucker, a move that is starting to make Crimson Tide’s head coach Nick Saban look like a genius.
Tucker, a defensive backs coach, was hired to Alabama on Jan. 26.
At 43 years old, Tucker does not mind being hands-on with Alabama’s secondary.
A former defensive back at Wisconsin, Tucker can been seen at practice getting into his stance in coverage and showing players what he wants done. Tucker, like Saban, bases the secondary on establishing position, attention to details, facing the ball and creating turnovers.
The Crimson Tide totaled just 11 interceptions for 84 yards last season, while opposing quarterbacks completed 64.3 percent of their attempts.
Alabama’s only played five games to this point, yet fans have seen much improvement with Tucker. This year’s defensive backfield has recorded seven interceptions for 148 yards and a touchdown. Opponents’ have completed just 51.4 percent of its passes against Alabama.
Much speculation was made upon Tucker’s arrival to Alabama, some of which were not so friendly. A horrific stint with the Chicago Bears (2013-14) tainted Tucker for some people.
The Bears finished 30th in the National Football League in total defense, allowing 29.9 points per game in 2013. Chicago was slightly better in 2014, finishing 21st in total defense. Tucker was its defensive coordinator in both seasons, the lone blemish on his coaching resume.
He is a defensive backs coach at heart, and has accomplished success with cornerbacks and safeties. Tucker’s first opportunity as a secondary coach came at Ohio State University from 2001-03. The Buckeyes forced 55 interceptions, with two returned for touchdowns.
He became Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator in 2004. The team posted 15 interceptions, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 55.8 percent of their passes.
Tucker recorded a 40-11 mark in four years with the Buckeyes and won a national championship in the 2002 season. Ohio State’s defensive backfield recorded 70 interceptions under Tucker, and had six players selected in the NFL Draft. All opposing quarterbacks were held under 60 percent in completion rating against the Buckeyes during Tucker’s tenure.
His first professional experience came in 2005 with the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns held opponents’ under 60 percent in completions and intercepted 50 passes from 2005-07, all three years Tucker was its defensive backs coach. He became its defensive coordinator in 2008. Cleveland finished 16th in total defense, allowing 21.9 points per game.
He spent three seasons in Jacksonville (2009-11) as defensive coordinator for the Jaguars. Jacksonville finished 11th in total defense in 2011, giving up 20.6 points per game.
Its secondary accounted for 45 interceptions under Tucker.
A scouting report on coach Saban is he enjoys hiring coaches that have shown quality work in the past. Special teams coach Bobby Williams and strength coach Scott Cochran are both prime examples. Williams was with Saban at Michigan State and the Miami Dolphins as a running backs coach, prior to coming to Alabama.
Cochran worked under Saban as a graduate assistant at LSU from 2001-03, and became its full-time assistant strength coach from 2003-04. Cochran joined Alabama’s staff as its director of strength and conditioning in 2007. Both he and Williams have witnessed three national titles.
Tucker has ties to Saban too. He was on his staff at Michigan State (1997-98) as a graduate assistant and at Louisiana State University (2000) as a defensive backs coach.
He brings energy and enthusiasm, but another concept that came with Tucker was patience. Three of Alabama’s seven interceptions have come from freshmen defensive backs Ronnie Harrison (two) and Marlon Humphrey (one). Not only has he been hands-on, but Tucker’s also gone in-depth with further explanations on coverage schemes that Alabama must execute.
Eddie Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick have blossomed with Harrison and Humphrey. Jackson, a junior, has two interceptions (tied for team lead) with one returned for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick, a freshman, has 21 total tackles, two sacks and a blocked punt for a touchdown.
Listed below are plays that both Jackson and Fitzpatrick made against Georgia, via Saturday Down South.
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart praised Tucker during fall camp on how well the players responded to him, and his ability to generate turnovers on defense. More football remains to be played, but for now, this year’s secondary is playing with passion.
Tucker’s work has taken root.
Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.