KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Finally, new Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will have all his players at his disposal.
The Vols open fall camp on August 1. Shoop went through spring practice without six to eight defenders who could play a key role this season and remembers a player telling him in April “just wait until you have all your bullets.”
The returning players will help Shoop know for sure if he has the personnel to defend power running attacks, spread-option offenses and hurry-up attacks.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said at SEC Football Media Days that his defense last season was deep enough and diverse enough to defend any offense it faced.
"That's the challenge nowadays," Shoop said on Sports Radio WNML. "We have good defensive linemen. We have good linebackers. We have good guys at both safety and corner. But you hit it on the head: That (defending a variety of attacks) is the challenge facing defensive coordinators in college football.
"It's not necessarily like the NFL, where you have most of the offenses running a similar style."
Shoop pointed out that Tennessee opens against an Appalachian State team with a 4,000-yard career rusher and a quarterback who had 30 touchdown passes. Game 2 is against Virginia Tech, which is going to a hurry-up offense under new coach Justin Fuente. Later in the season, there is the power run game of Alabama, which has spiced up its offense in recent seasons under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
"We've spent a great bit of time this summer preparing different packages for what our opponents might bring to the table and for the diversity of offenses we'll see," Shoop said. "But I think the thing that is important to always understand is although you want to be able to stop what the other team does, you want to have an identity – something you want to hang your hat on."
For Shoop, it's an aggressive, pressure, in-your-face style that makes opponents uncomfortable. Many coaches believe that to blitz on defense and be aggressive, you have to have good corners. Shoop was asked if he agrees with that philosophy.
"One of the things we are very, very committed to is trying to stop the run," Shoop said. "The teams that have had great success in this conference have stopped the run. To do that, you have to be able to pressure or outnumber the teams in the box in some way, shape or form.
"In order to do that, you put your corners, so to speak, on an island. And certainly you need to win your share of one-on-one battles out on the perimeter to be able to do that. And we're certainly fortunate to have pretty good depth at that position."
Cam Sutton is an All-SEC corner. Malik Foreman, Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley are other corners or nickel backs who will be asked to win those one-on-one battles.
Outside of scoring defense, Shoop was asked what statistic he thinks is most important: run defense, total defense, pass-defense efficiency or third-down defense. He didn't bite.
"We want to lead the league in wins," said Shoop, a former DC at Vanderbilt and Penn State. "The analytics that withstand the test of time are teams that stop the run, teams that eliminate explosive plays and teams that create takeaways.
"We've adopted the slogan, 'We're going to hunt the ball.' "
Finishing games also is high on Shoop's to-do list. Last season, the Vols lost two-touchdown fourth-quarter leads against Oklahoma and Florida, and also blew a 14-point first half lead against Arkansas.
Some Ivy League teams did not have contact in the spring, and plan to carry that into the fall. Less contact could keep a team healthy. But could it also mean a defense isn't as sharp as it needs to be?
"Fundamentals are critical," Shoop said. "The biggest thing I see happening nowadays is guys breaking down too far from the ball carrier and then lunging. That's where you get a lot of those labrum injuries."
Shoop said too many defenders get out of position and don't wrap up and don't move their feet upon contact.
"I might get my defensive coordinator card taken away from me, but I think you can teach all those fundamentals and techniques without taking guys to the ground," he said. "... We can teach proper angles, proper fundamentals, converge on the football.
"But there's a fine line between doing enough stuff physically that your team is prepared for the opening game and making sure that you keep the guys healthy as well."
(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)
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