A year after finishing 9-4 and bringing in another top-15 recruiting class, this may be the year when Butch Jones’ Tennessee Volunteers break through and win the SEC East. They’re projected ninth nationally by Bill Connelly’s S&P+ numbers, which would put them ahead of the rest of the SEC East if the season played out in an orderly fashion.
Tennessee is bringing back nine starters on offense and six on defense, from units that finished 43rd and 17th, respectively, in S&P+. Despite that top-20 performance by a young unit, Tennessee moved on from defensive coordinator John Jancek and brought in Bob Shoop from Penn State, fresh off a strong two-year run with the Nittany Lions.
Shoop inherits a talented squad and is tasked with trying to build an SEC-title contender defense from Jones’ recruits.
"We definitely have the chance to be pretty good," Shoop noted to me before tallying off a depth chart that features a mix of established veterans in cornerback Cam Sutton, end tandem Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett, and senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, to go along with a rising sophomore class full of blue-chippers.
How Shoop’s system could elevate Tennessee’s defense
"I’m definitely an analytics guy," Shoop said, "and the numbers say that playing good D is all about being efficient or creating negative plays on first-and-10."
This kind of first-pitch strike philosophy plays out in an over-front, cover-6 base scheme. It is geared toward loading the box and forcing throws outside the wide hashmark:
In motion, from Shoop’s Penn State defense:
On a running play, the nickel and corner look to hit the edges and keep runners contained. The deep safeties have alleys. It’s not as aggressive as how Michigan State plays it, but it can still get nine guys into the action relatively quickly.
On a passing play, the safeties help the corners over the top, unless the QB can make a throw to the outside field receiver (Z in the above diagram). The fact that the farthest receiver from the QB is the least defended option makes for a tough defense to crack on standard downs (which include first down, second-and-medium and third-and-short). Shoop will also mix in man-free blitzes to outnumber the offense up front.
The other base coverage is typical fire-zone blitz coverage, with three deep zone defenders and three zone defenders up close. Shoop mixes these in on first-and-10.
The most common three varieties of fire zone — the "field scrape" nickelback blitz (N on the diagram below), "bench scrape" boundary corner blitz (left C) and double inside-linebacker blitzes — are basic calls for Shoop on first and second downs. Here’s the double-LB blitz:
The outside rushers play to contain the pocket. The goal is to get pressure through the middle (a-gaps) with the linebackers.
With this mix of containment-oriented defense and blitzing, the hope is to force passes on second and third down.
That’s when the defense can use schemes like Tampa-2 or more exotic blitzing, with less fear of a run.
The last two years under Shoop, Penn State ranked No. 3 and No. 6 in the country on those passing downs (defined by Bill as second down with 8 or more yards to go or third/fourth down with 5 or more yards to go). If the Nittany Lions held steady on early downs, as they did frequently in 2014 (No. 9) and a bit less so in 2015 (No. 45), the offense was in major trouble.
Tennessee ranked slightly behind Penn State in both categories in both of the last two years.
It’s all standard strategy, but what Shoop has always done very well is teach the fundamentals of these schemes.
The competition from Tennessee’s 2016 schedule is going to be even more difficult than what Shoop faced at Penn State.
In addition to the Vols’ slate of SEC East opponents, their non-conference schedule includes Appalachian State and Virginia Tech and SEC West at Texas A&M and against Alabama.
"Everyone has to be able to run, even the interior DT guys, in the SEC. Even more so than in the Big Ten," said Shoop, who was previously with James Franklin at Vanderbilt. "Most of these teams are three, four-wide receiver, tempo teams. Our goal is to put as much productive speed on the field as we can. Guys up front that are disruptive and guys on the back end that can change direction and run."
The prognosis of that happening in 2016 looks good. This roster includes real speed at multiple positions.
Perhaps the most promising aspect is the defensive end rotation, which includes six players Shoop feels comfortable putting on the field, led by potential first-rounder Barnett (10 sacks in 2015) and Vereen (9.5 tackles for loss), whom Shoop calls "one of the more underrated players in the SEC."
The interior is less experienced, but includes blue-chip sophomores at defensive tackle (Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie) and middle linebacker (Darrin Kirkland Jr.).
There’s also veteran, NFL-caliber talent in Sutton and weakside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, both preseason All-Americans.
Fitting all this talent into Shoop’s scheme should be relatively easy.
There’s no lack of the kind of athleticism that he craves. Because Tennessee played a fair amount of cover 6 in 2015, the Vols aren’t strangers to the new style.
Shoop’s scheme generally has four key requirements:
- Defensive ends who can drop in pass coverage,
- cornerbacks who can play the edge against the run,
- linebackers who can cause problems on the blitz and
- safeties who reliably clean everything up.
"We’re able to move guys around and play guys in different positions than they’ve played before," Sutton said Tuesday. The required versatility is why getting "productive speed" on the field is so important.
Shoop says Sutton has "every skill set you need at corner." He’s indeed great, but who will accompany him? To me, it’ll probably be returning starter Justin Martin, or perhaps 2015’s starting nickel Malik Foreman.
Sophomore Micah Abernathy had a strong spring, and Tennessee needs its corners to be good against the run. So maybe Foreman moves toward the outside to get Abernathy on the field in the nickel package.
As a nickel in 2015, Foreman regularly handled run-force responsibilities that both corners will now need to execute regularly in Shoop’s system. Abernathy, because of his striking ability, is a dream SEC nickel corner.
The situation at linebacker for the Vols is also promising. Kirkland has always projected as a player who could excel in a blitzing scheme like Shoop’s, which Sutton describes as "in-your-face." Reeves-Maybin was lethal in 2015 (14 tackles for loss and six sacks).
Assuming McKenzie and the injury-rehabbing Tuttle are ready to capitalize on their tremendous physical talents, the Vol front should be highly disruptive.
Can the the inexperienced safety tandem maximize the opportunities from playing behind such a strong front? The likely starters are junior Todd Kelly Jr., who had three picks each of the last two years while playing regularly behind the departed starters, and redshirt sophomore Rashaan Gaulden, who was a promising freshman in 2014 and missed 2015 due to injury.
Kelly would play to the boundary, where he’d have to mix deep zone responsibilities with occasional forays into the box. Gaulden would carry the heavy responsibility for covering ground from the field safety position.
Tennessee is returning a lot of defensive talent, and most of it’s a great fit for Shoop’s calculated aggression and sound containment.
Continued strong play from veterans like Reeves-Maybin and Sutton, combined with breakout performances from rising sophomores like Kirkland and Tuttle, could easily lead to a leap in defensive play. If it happens, watch for Tennessee to win the East.