KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Bob Shoop refers to his Tennessee defense as the “Orange Swarm,” but beyond that, the Vols’ new defensive coordinator says his troops are still learning who they are.
“The identity is still somewhat to be determined, we’re still kinda trying to figure it out,” Shoop said in the days leading up to today’s closed scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. “Saturday (scrimmage) will go a long way toward determining that, when players don’t have coaches standing behind them telling them what to do.”
All eyes will be on the No. 10-ranked Vols soon enough, with the team less than three weeks away from opening the season on Thursday, Sept. 1, against Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium.
Shoop said he’s looking forward to working on “defensive staff mechanics,” which involve him operating from the press box and communicating with assistant coaches Will Martinez and Steve Stripling. who will be on the sidelines on games days.
As for how the defensive positions are shaking out, Shoop plans for Tennessee to play several players. He has not hesitated to identify which ones have stood out.
“The depth at D-End is unique to anything I’ve ever been around, Derek (Barnett) and Corey Vereen are legit, productive players, (and) you put Kyle Phillips in the game and his potential is tremendous,” Shoop said. “Then you put Jonathan Kongbo, who’s one of the guys who can provide some positional versatility, and he’s still learning.
“The other two guys who have played really well are Dimarya Mixon and Darrell Taylor in this camp. Each of them have made plays.”
Shoop has also sung the praises of fifth-year senior defensive linemen Danny O’Brien and LaTroy Lewis, talking about how he puts them out front often because of their experience in the program.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland are the obvious starting linebackers, and when UT goes to a third linebacker, Shoop said senior Kenny Bynum has had the upper hand.
“(Bynum) has played that before in the past, (and) it’s also been Dillon Bates, and then Colton Jumper has practiced that position as well,” Shoop said. “It’s just a ‘Sam’ (strong side) linebacker in a traditional 4-3 set.”
The Vols go six-deep at the safety/nickel spots, with true freshman Nigel Warrior emerging as a newcomer who could see repetitions in certain packages.
But Shoop made it clear that junior Todd Kelly Jr. leads the pack.
“Todd Kelly is a guy who has played a lot of football; you can coach a lot of years and not have had guys that have had six interceptions their first two years, the ball finds him,” Shoop said. “Stephen Griffin has improved a lot. Evan Berry is very talented, and Rashaun Gaulden can play a lot of different positions.
“I think the guy that’s played the best and most consistent the first 10 practices or wherever we are, is Micah Abernathy. I think that guy’s a real legit player. I think he’s a guy who’s going to have a big year.”
Shoop also liked the depth at cornerback entering into the scrimmage.
“(Emmanuel) Moseley and (Justin) Martin are both prideful guys, working hard to improve each day,” Shoop said. “It’s a very open competition. Marquill Osborne played a significant amount of nickel in the spring, but we’ve given him some opportunities to play outside on the corner, and he’s pretty good.
“The guy who has come in and really earned respect and trust of teammates and coaches is Baylen Buchanan. He’s a guy we think can contribute, and I’ve heard people on the staff compere him to Cam Sutton when he was a freshman.”
Opponents will often dictate exactly how Shoop’s defense looks, in terms of alignments and which players are on the field.
But there won’t be any significant changes from last season’s unit in terms of alignments.
“We have a nickel package that’s a 4-2-5, where we’ll play five DBs, two box backers, and four D-lineman,” Shoop said, “and we have a base package where it’s a 4-3 ,which we can play against other personnel groupings, two backs and one tight end, (or) one back and two tight ends.
“Then we have a dime package where we play three down linemen, two linebackers and six DBs, which we just started to install in the last couple of days for teams that are four and five wide receivers.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.