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A question of continuity

Posted Jan 19, 2012

Jaguars keeping core of defensive coaching staff together

Derek Cox didn’t like what he was hearing last week.

Cox, the Jaguars’ fourth-year cornerback, said it wasn’t so much that he had a preconceived notion about the future of Mel Tucker and the core of the team’s defensive coaching staff, but the idea of not playing for Tucker next season . . .

Well, Cox said that didn’t feel right.

“I don’t know, maybe I was a little possessive when I found out Coach Tucker was interviewing with Minnesota,” Cox said this week.

Cox and many around the Jaguars got the news they wanted later that week:

Not only was Tucker, the team’s defensive coordinator the past three seasons and the interim coach the last five games last season, not going to join the Minnesota Vikings, he was returning to the Jaguars as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator.

Shortly thereafter, news came that four other defensive assistants from last season will return as well:  line coach Joe Cullen, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, defensive assistant Brandon Blaney and defensive line assistant Paul Spicer. On Wednesday the team announced the hiring of former Jaguars safety Marlon McCree as assistant secondary coach, and on Friday Tony Oden joined the group as secondary coach.

The Jaguars ranked No. 6 overall in NFL total defense this past season, and players interviewed at the team’s Ready to Rise Rally this week said there’s value in maintaining continuity on a staff that helped the defense improve from a ranking of No. 28 overall in 2010.

“I was elated,” said Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who led the team with eight sacks and who is scheduled to become a free agent in March. “It’s always good to have familiar faces around – people who love you and respect you and understand what you bring to the table.

“Having everybody back, people you’re familiar with who know the system and know what to expect, know how to execute – this year, we’re just going to focus on getting better with what we do.”

Head Coach Mike Mularkey said his comfort level with Tucker’s defensive approach, as well as the Jaguars’ defensive success last season, made the decision to retain Tucker an easy one. Tucker last off-season helped simplify the Jaguars’ defensive scheme, an approach Mularkey said he favors.

Mularkey said the scheme is similar to the one brought to Atlanta by Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith, the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator from 2003-2007, “so I’ve seen it daily, worked against it obviously in training camp and in the offseason.

“The one thing about it, it’s not an exotic, bunch of moving parts,” Mularkey said. “Sometimes as an offensive coordinator or somebody that’s approaching a game, you get worried when guys are pretty much lined up where they’re basically inviting you to attack. Sometimes that’s a little more worrisome to me than when they’re all over the place.

“That’s what Mel has done here and you can just see the confidence behind it.”

Tucker appeared at the Ready to Rise Rally at EverBank Field Tuesday night along with Cullen, Duffner, Blaney and a group of Jaguars players. When Mularkey announced Tucker to the crowd, the fans gave him a rousing, extended ovation.

“It was pretty cool, because obviously our fans appreciated what our coaches and players did defensively,” Tucker said. “That means a lot to all of us.”

Tucker also said keeping the majority of the defensive staff together is a positive.

“I do feel good about it,” Tucker said. “It was very important to me that we were able to keep the core of our defensive staff together. We work well together, coaches and players. There’s mutual respect, and I think we feel like there’s some unfinished business that we’ll get a chance to finish.”

As Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith saw it, the defensive staff played a key role in the unit’s improvement this past off-season.

The Jaguars, after struggling defensively for several seasons, focused on offense early in the 2011 NFL Draft with the idea they would focus on defense in free agency. But because of the lockout last off-season, teams could not sign free agents from other teams until days before training camp.

The Jaguars in late July and early August signed middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, outside linebacker Clint Session, safety Dawan Landry, nickelback Drew Coleman and defensive end Matt Roth. They also acquired safety Dwight Lowery in a trade the final weekend before the regular season.

Smith said with so many new faces, the defensive staff “did a great job shaping the talent in a short window.”

“With how things worked out last year, we had a lot of new things on defense,” Smith said. “I thought they accelerated the learning curve.”

Smith also credited Tucker not only for the job he did as interim coach, but for allowing the defense to maintain a high level despite a slew of defensive injuries throughout the season. The Jaguars last season placed 18 defensive players on injured reserve, a list that included Session, Roth and starting cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox.

Defensive end Aaron Kampman also finished the season on injured reserve, as did a total of 10 defensive backs.

“I thought through the course of the whole year the guys were playing hard on defense,” Smith said. “Mel came in as the interim coach and down the stretch I thought team morale, players and coaches, was very strong, so I was encouraged by what I saw the entire year.”

Cox said however brief a period it may have lasted, the thought of playing for a coordinator other than Tucker gave him an uncertain feeling, a feeling that the task the defense started last season would be unfinished. Not having to change, Cox said, can only help the unit improve on what already was a season of improvement.

“I have nothing but passion about playing for Coach Tucker, and I’m happy they brought him back, obviously,” Cox said. “When you keep the core staff remaining defensively, it’s a step that you remove from the process of moving forward.

“The fact that we don’t have to familiarize ourselves with new coaches is a benefit and a plus. Now, it’s, ‘OK, we can focus on the relationships we already have and play football.’”

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