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VOL. 41 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 14, 2017

Look for Shoop to improve Vol defense

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Tennessee Volunteers defensive coordinator Bob Shoop prior to the start of the Orange and White spring game held at Neyland Stadium.

-- Charles Mitchell/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

The most unexpected development during Tennessee’s 2016 football season wasn’t three straight losses in October or the disappearing act at Vanderbilt.

It was the utter collapse of the Vols’ defense.

Bob Shoop is working overtime to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

When Shoop was hired away from Penn State amid much fanfare in January 2016, it was viewed as an upgrade that would pay major dividends on the field. But it didn’t work out that way. The Vols gave up more than 30 points six times and were gutted for an average of 661 yards in the final three games of the regular season.

While injuries certainly played a major role in the defensive slippage, there were other factors. Often, players appeared out of position. Tackling was haphazard. Pass coverage was lacking.

Along the way, Shoop was the target for substantial criticism. Much more is expected of a coach being paid $1 million-plus a year.

But to those who consider hiring Shoop a bad move, I’ve got news for you: The man didn’t forget how to coach overnight. He directed quality defenses at Vanderbilt and Penn State in the previous five years. It’s not like he lost his playbook on the way to Knoxville.

He believes Year 2 at UT will be better despite some major personnel losses. I concur.

“I feel like I’m taking better ownership of it, and I feel more comfortable and I think the players feel more comfortable with me,” he says.

“We walk into the room, and they kind of know what to expect. I know what to expect so therefore maybe there’s a comfort level.

“We are doing a good job of fixing the issues that hurt us last year and playing to our individual strengths. We are trying to identify who those players are and place them in a position that they can be successful.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that part of UT coach Butch Jones’ offseason staff overhaul included two significant changes on defense. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling was reassigned to the role of director of football program development, and secondary coach Willie Martinez was not retained. Brady Hoke and Charlton Warren replaced them.

Jones may have made the hires but those moves have Shoop’s fingerprints all over them. It was clear those positions were not very well coached last season.

“Any time there’s change, it can create anxiety but it’s been kind of refreshing this spring,” Shoop adds.

Clearly, Shoop is calling the shots on defense. He’s going to do things his way.

Much work remains.

When he was at Vanderbilt, Shoop installed a system in which two defensive calls were made for every snap of the ball – a primary call and a secondary call. Depending on the offensive formation, the players on the field determined whether to stick with the primary call or to adjust and implement the secondary call.

I assume Shoop took that system to Penn State, where the Nittany Lions were strong on defense during his two seasons. It would only make sense that he brought the same system to UT.

There were whispers last season that Shoop was frustrated because the Vols were failing to make the necessary adjustments from one call to the other. As the season wore on and the problems continued, Shoop scrapped the two-call scheme.

The Vols’ failure to adjust in the seconds before the ball was snapped contributed heavily to the defensive struggles. Prior to the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt, Shoop labeled the defense “not acceptable.”

“I’m responsible for this side of the football,” he said at the time, “and we’ve been very, very fortunate to have a great offense that carried the load.”

Then the Vols promptly gave up 45 points to Vanderbilt.

In retrospect, the injury wave at defensive tackle was too much to overcome. The Vols were undersized up front. No amount of X-and-O scheming could fix that.

Even though he is breaking in two new position coaches on his side of the ball in spring practice, Shoop seems more at ease. At this time last year, he was adjusting to a different coaching environment while the players adjusted to his personality and system. Now things are more settled.

“It’s like everything you do for the second time,” he explains. “Experience is the greatest teacher.”

The addition of Hoke to the coaching staff should help. After getting fired as head coach at Michigan in 2014, Hoke was out of football for a year. He spent last season as defensive coordinator at Oregon.

“Brady has been awesome,” Shoop says. “For me, personally, he’s been a great ally. He’s been a great mentor to me, to all the players on the defense and all the players on the team.”

But there are big shoes that must be filled. Defensive end Derek Barnett, UT’s all-time sack leader, is bound for the NFL draft. So are linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive back Cameron Sutton, both of whom were hampered by injury in their senior seasons.

Although the defense may lack star power, safety Todd Kelly Jr. says he believes it will be better because of continuity and teamwork.

“When you have two or three superstars but no one else on a defense, you can’t really play well together,” Kelly says.

“Just having 11 sound guys that can play Tennessee defense and ‘Orange Swarm’ football – that’s what it’s all about. And that’s what we’re trying to build each and every day.”

Fortunately, UT has the right architect in place to rebuild the defense.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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