Mel Tucker, a former Alabama assistant with Mario Cristobal, brings SEC mentality to Boulder
There was a point during the 2018 season when it appeared Mike MacIntyre was more likely to win Pac-12 coach of the year honors than to be fired.
Colorado started 5-0, including a road win over Scott Frost and Nebraska and a home win over Chip Kelly and UCLA, before a stunning collapse.
The Buffaloes stumbled to seven consecutive defeats, including a 41-34 overtime home loss to Oregon State, which snapped the Beavers’ 22-game road losing streak.
MacIntyre, less than two years after coaching the program to a South Division title, was given the pink slip six days before Colorado’s 33-21 loss at California in the season finale.
Athletic director Rick George hired Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to bring an SEC mindset to Folsom Field, where the only reliable performer over the last 15 years has been Ralphie.
“How are you guys doing? Just want to let you know that I’m really excited to be here,” Tucker said to open his press conference at Pac-12 media day on Wednesday in Los Angeles. “It’s been a great experience so far. The Pac-12 is an incredible conference. I’m just really looking forward to the season. It’s been a smooth transition.”
The outside view isn’t quite as upbeat. Colorado was picked to finish last in the South Division in the preseason media poll.
“It happens, it’s life,” star wide receiver Laviska Shenault, who was being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate after catching 10 touchdown passes in the first five games, said of the poll. “We’re going to take it and feed off of it.”
The Buffs, who wildly exceeded expectations by reaching the 2016 Pac-12 championship game, return senior quarterback Steven Montez and perhaps the conference’s best overall player in Shenault.
Montez, whose first career start was a dramatic win over Oregon at Autzen Stadium, passed for 2,849 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season.
Shenault had 1,126 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, despite being limited to nine games due to two injuries that required surgery.
“We have great potential this year to be a great team. We’ve got a lot of experience,” linebacker Nate Landman said. “Having a veteran quarterback is huge. And a play-maker like Laviska, to have this guy back there is always big, because the things he can do on the field are incredible.”
Colorado ranked 100th in rushing offense last season and returns little experience with Montez and Shenault having more career rushing yards than any of the running backs competing for snaps.
Running back Jalen Harris, an Auburn graduate transfer, is among the new additions trying to fill holes on the roster Tucker inherited.
“We want to win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, we want to play a physical style of football, we want to play relentless defense and we want to be able to run the ball on our terms,” Tucker said. “That’s the culture of our program right now.”
The Buffs were 70th in points allowed (27.3 per game) and 52nd in yards allowed (380.3 per game) last season.
Defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson, who led the Pac-12 with 8½ sacks, joined Shenault on the preseason all-conference first team. Landman is on the second team after leading Buffs with 123 tackles and two interceptions.
“We know what our potential is,” Landman said. “And the first day coach Tucker came in, he instilled that championship mindset and he addressed that as our goal. It’s really been trickled down from from him and the staff and the strength staff.”
Colorado won’t have to get on an airplane during nonconference play with home games against regional rivals Colorado State (in Denver), Nebraska and Air Force.
The Buffs could get off to another fast start before playing Oregon under the Friday night lights on Oct. 11 at Autzen Stadium (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
Tucker and Mario Cristobal were on the same staff for one year at Alabama.
“Mario is a good friend of mine. I loved coaching with Mario, and I have a lot of respect for him,” Tucker said. “He's a great coach, he’s a great recruiter, he gets it. I've talked to him a few times since I've been here in Boulder, and I'm really excited to see what he's going to do.”
Coach: Mel Tucker, first year (0-0 at Colorado and overall)
Key players: QB Steven Montez, WR Laviska Shenault, OL Will Sherman, RB Jalen Harris, LB Nate Landman, DL Mustafa Johnson
2018 record: 5-7 overall, 2-7 conference
2019 projection: The Buffaloes are picked to finish sixth (last) in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll
Nonconference opponents: Colorado State, Nebraska, Air Force
Plays Oregon: Oct. 11 in Eugene
Full schedule: Aug. 30 vs. Colorado State (in Denver), Sept. 7 vs. Nebraska, Sept. 14 vs. Air Force, Sept. 21 at Arizona State, Oct. 5 vs. Arizona, Oct. 11 at Oregon, Oct. 19 at Washington State, Oct. 25 vs. USC, Nov. 2 at UCLA, Nov. 9 vs. Stanford, Nov. 23 vs. Washington, Nov. 30 at Utah
Saturday’s preview: California