KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Bob Shoop was hired to help Tennessee win the East Division, close out games in the fourth quarter, create more turnovers and assist in finding those 25 points that serve as the combined margin of defeat in the Vols’ past five losses.
Can UT’s first-year defensive coordinator do all that in one year?
The early returns appear favorable.
Asked how confident the defense is in Shoop's scheme, All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton didn't bat an eye. "Very confident," Sutton said, "because he's put it into effect every day and we know it works."
Junior guard Jashon Robertson, a two-year starter and arguably the team's best offensive lineman, said he missed a protection for the first time since he was a freshman because of an "exotic blitz" Shoop threw at the offense.
"It was such a good blitz," Robertson said.
Robertson said Tennessee's strong front four and varied looks can only make the offensive line better.
Shoop brings a résumé of success to Knoxville. His defenses at Vanderbilt (2011-13) and Penn State (2014-15) each ranked among the nation's top 25. Last season, Penn State tied for the most sacks per game (3.54) in the nation, accumulating 46. Tennessee has had only two seasons in history with more than 46 sacks and only five with as many as 40 sacks. Penn State was second in the nation in total defense and seventh in scoring defense in 2014.
In 2013, Vanderbilt forced 30 turnovers – UT forced 19 last season – including 24 in the last eight games. In 2012, Vandy allowed 18.8 points per game, lowest by a Commodores team since 1997.
"Look at what he's done in his previous stops," Vols coach Butch Jones said of Shoop. "He fits his system to his current players; he adapts his scheme to the skill set he has. And he's doing things (with UT's defense) he's never done before."
Shoop has had nothing but praise for his personnel. He says he goes seven-deep at defensive end. He has called end Corey Vereen the most underrated player in the SEC. He has called end Derek Barnett a "savage" and a "warrior."
He has bragged about his top two linebackers – Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. He loves the talent and versatility he has in the secondary. He believes he has the pieces in place to stop a power running team like Alabama and a spread team like Texas A&M.
He boldly predicted a few months ago that "we're going to stop the run. Nobody will run the football on the 'Orange Swarm.' Nobody will run the football on Tennessee."
Tennessee ranked 45th nationally against the run last year, allowing 151.6 rushing yards per game. That number could – should – dramatically improve this year.
Tennessee's defense has shown gradual improvement over the past four seasons, going from a school-record 35.7 points per game allowed in 2012 to 29.0 points to 24.2 to 20.0. The yards allowed have decreased from 471 in 2012 to 418 to 365 to 362.
The question at Tennessee: Will Shoop do for the Vols' defense what John Chavis did his first year at Texas A&M?
The Aggies' defense went from allowing 451 yards and 28.1 points per game to 380 yards and 22 points. It was by far the most significant improvement in the SEC in yards allowed and second only to Vanderbilt in points allowed.
Shoop said when he was hired at Tennessee, Jones told him, "Your job is to get us from nine wins to 11 in a hurry."
Here are a few predictions on how much Tennessee's defense will improve under Shoop:
* The Vols will go from allowing 151.6 rushing yards per game to 125.
* The Vols will go from allowing 362 yards per game to 310.
* The Vols will go from allowing 20 points per game to 17.
* The Vols will go from creating 19 turnovers to 30.
* The Vols will go from 30 sacks to 38.
"If we learn how to finish," Shoop said a few months ago, "we can take this thing from nine wins to 11 wins, so that first Saturday in December, we can all make hotel reservations in Atlanta every year representing the SEC East."
(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)
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