It sounds like simple, run-of-the-mill coach speak. Perhaps one day that will prove to be true.
However, now there seems to a bona fide recognition that Tennessee coach Butch Jones isn’t just pushing an agenda when he talks about a culture he’s trying to instill in Knoxville. That culture has been present this spring, when the Vols haven’t been at full strength.
Tennessee began spring practice with more than its share of injuries, then suffered another to its leader on defense when linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was ruled out of practice and workouts until June. It would be a good time for a sulking session. Yet that hasn’t been the case.
“It’s not been a negative at all really,” first-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said on Thursday when asked about the Vols’ many injuries.
It’s apparent watching the Vols practice that the injured players aren’t content sitting on the bench or leaning on their crutches. They have been determined to help the Vols improve even if they’re not 100-percent.
Sidelined junior defensive end Derek Barnett has spent time working with two other underclassmen defensive
ends: redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor and sophomore Austin Smith. Junior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers has been held out of practice, but has spent time working with some of the younger players at his position. Meanwhile, Evan Berry looks more like a coach than a player as he pushes his healthier teammates, oftentimes with a clipboard in his hand.
“We’ve assigned them each a guy,” Shoop said of the injured leading the healthy.
No one had to assign Reeves-Maybin a player to mentor. Sophomore middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland was eager to fill the role of pupil. So far, he’s done quite well.
“Watching Darrin Kirkland start to emerge as a real leader of the defense, the quarterback of the defense,” Shoop said when asked if any player had caught his eye. “His command and his approach is like a 10-year veteran.”
The praise has been unusually strong for a sophomore. Apparently, Kirkland was deserving of it well before spring practice even began.
“I said it from the first day I was here,” said Shoop, who was hired in January. “You coach a long, long time and he’s (Kirkland’s) got kind of a unique personality. He thirsts for more. He really wants to be the leader of the defense. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that when he started playing better (last season), the team started playing better.
“He asks good questions. He challenges my thoughts. He’s not just a yes man. He’s the undisputed leader of the defense right now, runs the walkthrough himself, commands his troops, really has some of those qualities when you think of really good linebackers.”
Shoop said he’s pleased with his depth in the secondary. One well-known player has stood out to no one’s surprise.
“I knew he was good, but I didn’t realize he was this good, is Cam Sutton,” Shoop said of the cornerback. “He’s a pro. Someone asked me what’s so good about him. It’s his approach. He comes to work everyday. He’s the first one out (to practice).
“There’s not a technique that he doesn’t do very, very well. To me, you hear other players’ names as far as (the best) corners in the SEC. But I think it’s about time we start putting him up at the next level.”
Shoop almost never had the chance to coach Sutton. Sutton strongly considered an early exit for the NFL after the 2015 season.
“He’s so unselfish,” Shoop said. “He’s so quiet about it. He came back, not for personal game, but he came back because he was here for the the building process. He wants to see this thing through and compete for an SEC title and get to where we want to get.”
Some lesser known players have also garnered Shoop’s praise, especially at defensive tackle.
“LaTroy Lewis has been a very consistent performer,” Shoop said. “He just comes out everyday and does his job. He and Danny O’Brien have just set the pace for guys up front.”
Most college coaches dread late night text messages. It often means one of their players is facing an off-field issue. Shoop, however, doesn’t mind getting late night texts from Kirkland. It’s usually just a question about football or a comment about that day’s practice. Shoop doesn’t mind the correspondence. It’s a sign that the defensive coordinator is right where he needs to be.
“I think they’ve come to work every single day,” Shoop said. “(It’s) the culture that has been created by Coach Jones and the program.”