For Kirby Smart, the Sugar Bowl entails much more than the result
If it weren’t for Mel Tucker, Georgia starting cornerback Eric Stokes doesn’t think he’d be wearing the red-and-black.
It was Tucker who recruited the redshirt freshman out of Eastside as a three-star when Georgia was looking at five-star prospects at nearly every other spot. Tucker also developed Stokes to the point where he unseated freshman Tyson Campbell as starter for the final three games of the season.
“He played a big, big, big part,” Stokes said. “He’s at Colorado now, and we just have to move on.”
Tucker departed Athens after three seasons to accept a head-coaching job at Colorado on Dec. 5. He was able to pluck offensive quality control analyst Jay Johnson and defensive quality control analyst Tyson Summers to be his offensive and defensive coordinators.
Tucker has fully assumed his duties with Colorado will not coach Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
“I thank coach Tuck for the opportunity he gave me,” inside linebacker Juwan Taylor said. “He spoke to us, but we figured that he was going. He told us about the situation, and everyone on the team respected his decision.”
Tucker’s tenure at Georgia was full of success as his defensive unit led the Bulldogs to national prominence in two-of-three seasons -- including a National Championship appearance in the 2017 season. In his most recent campaign, in which Georgia is set to play in the Sugar Bowl, Georgia ranked 13th in total defense and 16th in scoring defense.
Georgia doesn’t yet have a timetable for making a new hire. There are both in-house candidates and options outside of the program. A search for replacement is jumbled between a signing period and a declare date for NFL prospects.
“We’ll have a ton of interest, obviously, with an opportunity to come in and be at a place with good players like the University of Georgia,” head coach Kirby Smart said. “(But) we’ve always been really involved with the defense, so it’ll continue to be that way.”
From the moment Tucker left, Georgia has been forced to shift around its staff for a team-wide effort. It came at an inopportune time for Smart as the recruiting period soon followed ahead of early signing day on Dec. 21, but similar coaching moves took place across the nation. Georgia’s changes were first seen on the recruiting trail when wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton was recruiting defensive players out of South Florida -- one of Tucker’s most-prosperous recruiting spots -- and had former Bulldog safety Bacarri Rambo working with him.
In regard to coaching the secondary in preparation for Texas, the dynamic is similar. Dan Lanning and Glenn Schumann, linebacker position coaches who have spent time in secondary meetings, have assisted significantly. Rambo, quality control assistant Tavares Tillman and other graduate assistants have pitched in as well.
“I think the biggest adjustment will be Mel called it and Mel’s not here,” Smart said. “We’ve got guys with experience calling it, whether it’s a spring game or my 12 years or whatever it is, so we’ve got a lot of value there. It was a team effort and it’ll continue to be that.”
But Smart has volunteered to take over the secondary for bowl preparation. As a former Georgia cornerback and long-tenured coordinator at Alabama, his players know what to expect.
“It’s more intense, because he’s the head coach and demands more out of you,” Stokes said. “Everything we’ve been doing with him has been the real deal. It’s his.”
Tucker’s influence on Georgia’s program was widely-significant, and players took time to reflect on it. But in regard to an on-field approach, a lot remains the same.
“You don’t really think about it once you’re out there,” Taylor said. “You’re just practicing.”