KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s a new day for Tennessee’s defense, with second-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop having two different assistants at his side, and a group of returning players looking to salvage pride this season.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a group of guys with a bigger chip on their shoulder and more determined,” Shoop said Friday at the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio. “They’ve put themselves in a good position to be a really good unit.”
The Vols truly couldn’t get much worse after finishing 95th in the nation in total defense in 2016.
Tennessee Football Embarrassment
Tennessee’s defense was a pathetic sight by the end of last season at Vanderbilt with two 255-pounders lining up at defensive tackle and another two players in the secondary with sprained ankles.
The Commodores racked up 608 total yards — 416 through the air — outscoring Tennessee 21-3 in the second half as Vols’ fans angrily called New Orleans hotels to cancel Sugar Bowl plans.
Earlier in the season, a true freshman got burned at safety for a game-winning touchdown against South Carolina, biting on a screen fake instead of playing his assignment.
Nigel Warrior was a third-teamer the weak before, but injuries to Micah Abernathy and Evan Berry pressed him into action, and like many other Tennessee backups last year, he wasn’t prepared.
Coach Butch Jones has talked a lot about “competitive depth” in the offseason, and the secondary was the poster child of that statement, as 11 different defensive back combinations were started in 13 games.
Tennessee Football Defense Future
Shoop, understandably, wants to focus on the future.
“I don’t want to spend a lot of time re-visting last year,” said Shoop, who had the nightmarish task of putting together seven different defense line combinations and eight different linebacking corps for games last season because of the injuries and attrition.
“I take responsibly, and I’m not making excuses, but we had injuries and we gave up explosive plays, in one sentence, that’s it,” Shoop said. “The explosive plays happened in the pass game on 50-50 balls, not getting our eyes around and not making enough plays.”
Jones fired secondary coach Willie Martinez and hired Charlton Warren, a coach with a military background who has stressed the fundamentals throughout the offseason.
While fellow first-year Vols’ assistant Brady Hoke appears to have a firm grip on improved defensive line play, Warren will be challenged to help Shoop re-shape the secondary.
Tennessee gave up 16.3 yards per completion over its last three games, only five Power 5 conference schools worse in the secondary in that span: Kentucky (18.5), Syracuse (18.3), Virginia (17.3) and Texas Tech (16.5).
Shoop said it was a matter of adjusting the defense so the Vols wouldn’t give up even bigger plays.
Indeed, Tennessee gave up 37 plays that went for more than 30 yards —112th in the nation.
Tennessee Football Secondary Improvement
Still, Shoop has confidence the secondary will improve greatly.
“I actually think safety is a position of strength for us,” Shoop said. “Todd Kelly had a good year for us in a lot of ways last year and so did Micah Abernathy.
“Nigel (Warrior) had a really good spring, and he has had a really good summer, where he and Evan Berry have taken off and are ready to go.”
The new and improved version of Justin Martin has Shoop talking up the cornerbacks, too.
“As we went through the spring, Justin Martin was the most improved player, he’s grown and matured and developed and done a real nice job, so we have high expectations for him coming into camp,” Shoop said. “Emmanuel Moseley is a a veteran, a pro, one of the leaders, so he’s a guy his teammates look up to, (and) we got Shaq Wiggins, who came from Louisville and played in this league when he was at Georgia.
“Those are three bonafide SEC corners who have played a lot of football a this level, and I look forward to those guys competing and rotating at that position.”
Tennessee football assistants talk about upcoming season
Posted by Tennessee Volunteers Insiders on Friday, July 21, 2017