KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Bob Shoop could only shake his head in the film room last week.
Tennessee’s first-year defensive coordinator was watching every one of the Vols’ 12 games this season, in sequential order.
“I literally watched every single game, and to watch our style of play from the beginning of the season to the end of the season,” Shoop said, “it looks like two different teams.”
The Vols (8-4) likely will look like a third different team at 3:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 30 when they play Nebraska (9-3) in the Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.
The Vols had six different starters on defense in the last game of the regular season compared to the first game.
All-SEC picks and team captains Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton were lost before the league portion of the schedule, fifth-year defensive line cog Danny O’Brien was dismissed midseason for a violation of team rules.
And that was just the beginning.
Tennessee wound up losing four defensive tackles to season-ending injuries/attrition and utilizing 11 different starting combinations in the secondary because of various bumps and bruises.
The team limped to the finish line, costing itself a Sugar Bowl bid when it lost to Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale.
Tennessee dropped a disappointing 45-34 decision to the Commodores, and the team is just now beginning to recover from a psychological standpoint.
More importantly, the team is getting over some — not all — of the inordinately high number of injuries that undermined what started out as a promising season.
“We lost confidence and momentum, and there was a cumulative effect to a long season,” Shoop said. “We had devastating, devastating injuries — it wasn’t like it was a twisted ankle or a bruised hand.
“We had guys miss significant amounts of time, and therefore not only did guys have to play before their time, but they had to play more snaps than they were ready to play.”
Tennessee’s attrition has been so steep that only Kendal Vickers and Derek Barnett started every game on the defensive side of the ball.
UT has started eight different linebacking units, with Reeves-Maybin essentially out since the third game of the season and recently declining to appeal for a medical redshirt.
Sophomore Darrin Kirkland, like Sutton, has not resembled the player Shoop saw on film in September since returning from the high ankle sprain he sustained on Sept. 10.
The Vols’ issues at defensive tackle — where it lost four of the top five players at the position to attrition — has been well-documented.
In all, Tennessee had seven different players start at defensive tackle, and seven different defensive line combinations.
Shoop said when you put all those factors at the fast-forward and multiple-snap pace today’s style of play features with no-huddle, hurry-up teams, the circumstances speak for themselves.
“We’re playing a lot of snaps over the course of a lot of games,” Shoop said, “and it took its toll toward the end of the year.”
Indeed, five players on Tennessee’s defense played more than 100 snaps in a zany 49-36 win over Missouri on Nov. 19.
Is it really so surprising the Vols defense surrendered a 31-24 halftime lead at Vanderbilt and lost its stinger in the second half?
“I think in the Missouri game we lost a little confidence, played 110 snaps,” Shoop said. “Being paper thin in regard to depth, and all of those things compounded themselves the last couple of weeks.
“At the end of the year we weren’t playing what I’d consider my or our style of play, and I’m well aware of that. It’s on me.”
Shoop said he sensed this week in practice that the tide is turning for the Vols.
“I’m a big believer your performance in last week’s game doesn’t have a lot to do with your performance in this week’s game,” he said. “We seem to have picked up the confidence again, we seem to be excited about practicing, and I know our team will give its best effort against Nebraska.”
SHUFFLING THE DECK
• Tennessee secondary featured 11 different starting combinations
• Tennessee linebacking corps had eight different starting units
• Tennessee defensive line had seven different starting combinations
• DT Kendal Vickers & DE Derek Barnett were the only two players on defense to start every game
• Tennessee had 27 different players start at some point on defense