NCF Nation: Bob Shoop

After taking a look at the most recent database of revenues and expenses in college sports, we’re putting the Big Ten under the microscope. Our four-part series -- the rest of which can be found here -- concludes with a look at recruiting expenses and why they've grown.

Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop can still remember sifting through thick stacks of manila recruiting folders in the mid-90s and reaching for a shelf of VHS tapes hanging above his desk.

There were no real recruiting support staffs to speak of. He'd pop a recruit's game tape into a VCR and then ready himself with a notepad. Fast forward, fast forward. There's the recruit. Fast forward, fast forward.

[+] EnlargeClayton Thorson
Tom Hauck for Student SportsDigital and online technologies are helping schools discover prospects like Clayton Thorson earlier and make more educated scholarship offers.
"Recruiting's changed a lot," Shoop told ESPN.com. "Our recruiting staff, they'll cut up tapes for me now. I don't have to sift through hours of recruiting tape anymore. Our interns will hand me 10 clips for a 2016 safety or something like that. You're investing to recruit good people."

As technology has evolved, so has recruiting -- and recruiting budgets. In just the past six seasons, according to a recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," recruiting budgets encompassing all sports have increased at 13 of 14 Big Ten schools and risen by at least 30 percent at eight of those. Higher gas prices, increased postage and other variables have undoubtedly played a role but several coaches and athletic directors also stressed how bigger staffs -- a result of newer technology -- have inflated those numbers.

At Penn State, Shoop can now rely on two full-time staff members, two graduate assistants and a team of 30 students/interns to help with recruiting. At Northwestern, the recruiting staff has tripled in just the last six to eight years. And, at Ohio State, one full-time position was recently added, in part, to help with recruiting presentations.

"Our technology has increased quite a bit," OSU athletic director Gene Smith said. "That's a big number for us."

That technology, such as online game film, has placed a bigger focus on immediacy. In an age where a top prospect's highlights can be filmed today and broken down by college coaches tomorrow, staffs can no longer wait until the offseason to evaluate players. And they can't drop everything on a Friday night in October, either, to give up game plan tweaks in favor of digesting film from a high school junior.

"Your coaches are doing this thing in the football season called coaching," said Chris Bowers, Northwestern's director of player personnel. "The time allocation a position coach would spend in March, he's not going to allocate that same amount of time in December or October. He can't. So, yes, there's been an increase in staff for sure.

"I would say at most universities -- I can't speak for everyone -- the recruiting staff is probably two to three times bigger than it was in '06."

In September of 2012, the Wildcats were able to jump early on the Clayton Thorson bandwagon because of that extra staff and technology. The ESPN 300 quarterback, who signed with Northwestern in February, hadn't started under center prior to 2012.

So, when he was due in Evanston, Ill., for a Saturday night game, Bowers noticed his high school coach uploaded his film to the Hudl website that Friday evening. Bowers contacted a GA, requested he cut-up some highlights -- and then forwarded the finished product to the coaching staff. Thorson received an offer that Saturday, partially based on something that was filmed less than 24 hours before.

And if this had all happened just a few years before, then how long would it have taken to make that same judgment call? Months?

"

You're investing to recruit good people.

" -- Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
"Yes!" Bowers said. "… Even if you were an aggressive recruiting staff, the high school coaches would still need to bring you a DVD or mail it to you -- and they might not do it until the end of the season."

Nationally, recruiting budgets have risen across the board, so it's hardly limited to the Big Ten. Still, the conference seems to be outpacing the competition. Between 2008 and 2012, Big Ten teams placed within the top-10 nationally in recruiting spending on just five occasions. In 2013, four conference teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State) placed within the top 10 -- and Illinois wasn't far behind at No. 12.

But coaches and athletic directors were slow to label last season a turning point. After all, it's not as if the staffs had all doubled overnight. Instead, they cautioned, there were other variables that needed to be taken into account. At Wisconsin, for example, the budget is artificially low because the Badgers are provided a private plane and don't need to charter flights as much. At Iowa, a booster donation wasn't included in the recruiting numbers until a few years ago -- which could account for part of the jump. And at Minnesota, due to the campus location, increased flight and hotel expenses impacted the budget more than schools elsewhere.

"We can't drive as much as others," Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague added. "So we've got to keep building the budget and being aggressive."

Regardless, the trend of spending more on recruiting each season appears to be a difficult one to stop. Whether it's an increased staff or costs elsewhere, few universities take a step back in spending.

But, on the bright side, it could be worse -- at least the era of "Be kind; please rewind" is long gone.

"That required a significant amount of manpower hours," Shoop said with a laugh. "And in some ways, now, it's a pro model. It's not like you have an entire scouting department, but I'm sure we're getting closer to that model now than ever before now, as far as people whose sole responsibility is player evaluation. ... It's incredible how the process has accelerated."

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull was once a coin flip away from transferring to Pitt, but that all seems like a lifetime ago for the Penn State linebacker.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLB Mike Hull, who has seen a lot of changes at Penn State, expects 2014 to be his breakout season.
The redshirt senior is going into his fifth season at Penn State, and he's already endured many changes and ups-and-downs. He watched his team adjust to three head coaches -- five, including the interims -- and four defensive coordinators during his career. And he bided his time as a redshirt sophomore, playing behind two All-Big Ten talents, before standing on the sideline as a starter for parts of four games last season due to injury.

But now, in his final season, and with his final college coach, Hull believes it's finally his time to break out.

"It's something I've been waiting for for a long time," Hull told ESPN.com. "It's my time to step up and lead the team and lead a good defensive unit to where we can win a Big Ten championship."

Hull isn't the loudest player on the field. He's not one to grab a mic during a pep rally and spearhead some impromptu speech like cornerback Jordan Lucas. But he's become the anchor of this defense, not unlike middle linebacker Glenn Carson last season, and he's wasted no time in making an impact on a staff that's only known him for three short months.

"The guy who has stood out the most to me at this point is Hull," James Franklin said toward the end of spring practice. "He's done a nice job. He's smart, he's got great instincts -- he's not the biggest linebacker -- but he's quick, and he's powerful, and he's freakishly strong. I've been very pleased with him."

Hull stands at just 6-foot, 227 pounds. But he's also played well enough to stand out to every coordinator who coached him -- and, seemingly, all for different reasons. Tom Bradley watched Hull zoom past would-be blockers as a freshman, clocked his 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds and briefly tried him at safety. Ted Roof watched him out-lift every one of his teammates as a sophomore, when he benched 405-pounds to best offensive linemen who outweighed him by nearly triple digits.

John Butler praised him last season as an "all-around outstanding football player." And, now, current coordinator Bob Shoop sees a sense of maturity and leadership in Hull that he's rarely found elsewhere, in part because he's learned from so many tutors.

"Mike's very mature," Shoop said. "He's football smart. He's very distinctive. ... There's not a player I trust more than him. He's a really special guy, and he's the undisputed quarterback of the defense."

At this time last season, Hull was the favorite from experts and fans alike when it came to naming the Nittany Lions' next breakout star. But, as Hull acknowledged, that title never quite materialized. With a nagging leg injury, one that didn't see him return to 100 percent until late October, he didn't live up to expectations until the final five games of the season. And, during that stretch, Hull unsurprisingly led Penn State in tackles (44). The No. 2 tackler, Carson, had 35 in that same stretch.

With a defense lacking in depth, even more will be expected of Hull this season. There are a few things working against him -- namely new schemes and a new coordinator -- but he's been in this position before. Twice.

"It's been easier to learn just because of the way [Shoop] packages everything together," Hull added. "It seems hard, but it's simple once you get used to it."

The last era of Penn State players who competed under three different head coaches were underclassmen in 1948, so Hull's position is a unique one. Still, the soft-spoken linebacker has tried to take it in stride.

Hull has taken on extra responsibility at middle linebacker, after playing outside last season. And Shoop has been pleased with how he's adjusted to an aggressive scheme that places extra emphasis on sacks and tackles-for-loss.

Hull, a Pennsylvania native could've had a different future if that proverbial coin landed on Pitt instead of Penn State. He could've had a more stable career. But he's not looking back now; he's finally looking forward to being "the guy" at Linebacker U.

"I don't want to compare something that never happened," Hull said. "I'm thankful for my time at Penn State. It's been one of the wildest times."
video
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has produced a first-team All-Big Ten defender in eight of the past nine seasons, but no Nittany Lions defensive back has made the list since 2008 (safety Anthony Scirrotto). The drought could end this year.

If safety Adrian Amos plays to his potential, it will end.

"I don't know if I've ever coached a player with Adrian's skill set before," Lions defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told ESPN.com. "He’s so big, so strong, so fast. He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receives national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Amos' size, speed and versatility make him a key cog in Penn State's secondary.
Shoop has yet to coach Amos in a game, but sees the potential on tape and on the practice field and is setting the bar high for the senior. Amos has the size -- nearly 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds. He has the speed, clocking a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash as a sophomore (unlike 99.9 percent of the population, he actually gets faster as he gains weight). He has the playmaking ability, with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups.

He also has versatility, although where he plays has sparked debate among Penn State fans.

"He's got a lot of things we're all looking for in recruiting, and what people are looking for at the next level in terms of drafting: height, weight, speed," PSU head coach James Franklin said. "He processes information fast as well. There are some guys that will test fast but they don't think fast on the field, so it slows them down.

"He does all those things extremely well."

Whether Amos' unique skills translate at safety remains to be seen. He played predominantly cornerback in high school in Baltimore and had success there early in his Penn State career, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2012.

He moved to safety last year to mixed results, as Penn State slipped to 59th nationally in points allowed and 73rd against the pass. Amos moved back to cornerback late in the season and performed well in an overtime win against Illinois, deflecting a pass that led to the clinching interception.

"Amos, his natural position, is corner," then-coach Bill O'Brien said at the time. "I think he's a good corner."

But he's a strong safety again with the new coaches. Shoop's rationale: it's the position a team's best defensive back should play.

"He's a natural safety," linebacker Mike Hull said of Amos.

Amos' take: "I'd say I’m a cornerback but I play well at safety. I can be very, very good at safety. The movements and everything are more natural and they come easily to me."

So which is it: safety or cornerback? Franklin acknowledges that Amos' versatility creates a debate. Amos and Jordan Lucas form an effective tandem at cornerback. Then again, having one standout at both secondary spots could be Penn State's best route. And the Lions coaches seek versatility, perhaps more than any other trait, on a roster where depth remains in short supply.

The truth is Amos can play well at both spots. But the comfort level he displayed during spring practice didn't come from his position.

"If I'm comfortable in the defense, I'm comfortable at any position," Amos said. "This defense allows me to play fast, so I enjoy playing safety in this defense. It allows me to be aggressive. It allows me to be around the ball a lot more, just making more plays.

"When you're a safety and you understand the defense, you play faster."

Amos calls the new defense a "fresh start," and has spent more time studying himself and his teammates on film. Shoop also shows him tape of his former Vanderbilt defenses and how certain unique players similar to Amos moved from safety to corner to nickel to dime.

This spring, they watched Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mark Barron, the former Alabama star, shift from covering the slot receiver to being the dime linebacker to working at strong safety and then free safety.

"He's a unique weapon for a defense," Shoop said of Amos. "To use a basketball analogy, you try to get him his touches."

Amos was too banged up to run the 40-yard dash for the new coaches before spring practice, but his goal is to break 4.4 at the next testing session. He believes he can play both secondary positions in the NFL, where bigger cornerbacks are trending and sturdy, physical safeties are still in demand.

But first thing's first. "We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten," he said.

Elite secondaries have elite players, and Penn State could have one in Amos this fall.

"He has so much athleticism and skill," Hull said. "I haven't seen that out of very many players in the Big Ten. He has the whole package. He just needs to put it all together this year."

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."

If you live in State College and haven't shaken James Franklin's hand, high-fived the Penn State coach or snapped a picture with the new leading Lion, you're probably a recluse.

Since his Jan. 11 introduction, Franklin has been a man about town, at least when he's not feverishly recruiting or attending the State of the Union address as a congressman's guest. From speaking to crowds at THON and other Penn State athletic events, to wearing a wig so he could get his (already bald) head shaved at a fundraiser, Franklin is everywhere.

But there's a group of Penn Staters with whom he has yet to connect, at least not nearly as much as he'd like to.

"We've had very little time to interact with the players," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The 20-hour rule and all those things are good rules, but when you're a new staff, it makes it challenging. We've got to build relationships, we've got to build trust, and we've got to get our system installed. That's why we've been successful in the past.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithJames Franklin says offensively his system will be similar to that of former coach Bill O'Brien.
"That's what our focus is right now. We've been running since Day 1."

There will be running when Penn State opens spring practice Monday. Blocking and tackling, too. There will be installation in all three phases and position competitions -- all the standard signs of spring ball.

But the most important work will take place away from the field and might have nothing to do with football.

"It starts in the locker room and selling your vision, selling the culture you want to create," offensive line coach Herb Hand said. "You don't know the kids and they don't know you. That's the first challenge coming in, the development of relationships. You're doing that after you've been on the road recruiting for two or three weeks. And then you're in the middle of winter workouts and you're barking and screaming and getting after them and you hardly know them.

"Relationships take time."

The process is under way at Penn State after an intense winter program.

"I haven't had a coaching staff push us this hard as far as conditioning goes, and also as far as competition," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "You can tell Coach Franklin's real passionate about what he does, and he fires us up.

"[The coaches] talk about building relationships, and that's exactly what they've done."

After the recruiting whirlwind concluded, Hand took the offensive linemen to dinner, wisely selecting a Chinese buffet ("When you walk in with 13 or 14 300-pound people, that'll garner some attention"). Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, meanwhile, gleaned insight into his new team by spending last weekend reading John Bacon's book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," which chronicled Penn State's transition and tumult in 2012.

"These guys have been through a lot," Shoop said. "They've have had four [defensive] coordinators in four years. They've seen the good and bad of the profession. I'm just amazed with their approach and their maturity."

The second challenge for Franklin and his staff isn't a new one during the sanctions era. Scholarship reductions had a larger impact on the Lions' depth in Year 2 than Year 1, and as Franklin recently noted, "The longer you're in it, the more effect it has."

There are some potential trouble spots such as the offensive line, which enters the spring with only three scholarship tackles (Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson and mid-year enrollee Chasz Wright). Franklin admits PSU has "major depth issues" up front.

Hand's response? Bring it.

"I could sit there and say this is going to be an obstacle for us and we'e going to struggle," he said. "You know what's going to happen? We're probably going to struggle because of our depth. But you go back to Core Value No. 1: have a positive attitude. Let's dwell on the opportunity."

When Shoop watched tape of PSU's defense last year, he saw the same linemen remaining on the field and few personnel combinations. Shoop's Vanderbilt defense used 20-22 players, while Penn State rarely played more than 15.

The hope is this year's defense will have more bodies, although Penn State is thin at tackle and cornerback. Shoop likes the foundation at defensive end with C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes, and at safety, the position he directly coaches, as Adrian Amos returns alongside Ryan Keiser.

Linebacker depth surfaced in 2013, but Shoop is willing to get creative. One possibility: a 4-2-5 alignment with a hybrid safety/linebacker.

Amos, who has played both cornerback and safety but will start off at strong safety, provides a building block.

"So big, so strong, so fast," Shoop said. "He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receivers national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

PSU returns an excellent centerpiece on offense in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who will operate a system that, according to Franklin, won't differ dramatically from Bill O'Brien's. Franklin lived on the same street as O'Brien when the two worked at Maryland and is philosophically aligned with his predecessor.

Shoop will pressure more than the Lions did in the past, but the structure of the defense shouldn't change much, either.

"Very, very similar concepts," Franklin said. "The terminology is just a little bit different."

According to Shoop, the players are taking a businesslike approach to their latest transition. Hull came to a program that had been the model for stability in college football. It has been anything but in his time there.

"The first time was real hard," Hull said. "We didn't really know what to expect at all. This time, it’s been a lot easier. Whenever a new staff comes in, they want to get in all their policies and values. Some people it frustrates, but it's good to have myself, Miles Dieffenbach, some of the older guys tell them it will get better, it just takes time."

Penn State must maximize its time this spring. Installation, development and evaluation are the staff's top three goals, according to Hand.

But there's an even bigger objective.

"How do you prove trust?" Hand said. "Studying them, finding out where's their hometown, what's their family situation like, what's their major.

"Once you win the locker room, everything else will take care of itself."

In defense of SEC defenses

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
1:35
PM ET
For a league that has made its mark (and left a few bruises) with bone-crunching defense over the years, this hasn’t necessarily been a season to remember in the SEC on the defensive side of the ball.

Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop probably summed it up best.

“What a crazy year to be on defense in the SEC,” Shoop said.

Some of the numbers on defense are even crazier.

Already, there have been 10 SEC matchups this season where both teams scored 30 or more points. A year ago, there were only five such shootouts for the entire season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Jay SailorsA talented group of quarterbacks and the speed at which they run offenses is stressing SEC defenses.
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, there are only five SEC teams ranked in the top 40 nationally in total defense -- No. 5 Alabama, No. 7 Florida, No. 22 South Carolina, No. 24 LSU and No. 40 Vanderbilt.

By contrast, five SEC teams finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense last season, and four of those -- Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina -- finished in the top 11.

There’s no question that the quarterback play in the SEC this season, both the caliber and experience of the quarterbacks across the league, has had a huge impact.

And as veteran Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson points out, the NFL draft the last few years has decimated the top defensive fronts and pass rushers in the league.

In the most recent draft, 17 defensive linemen and/or outside linebackers from the SEC were selected. Nine of those players were underclassmen.

“You’ve seen a little dip in this league on defense as far as where it’s going to be in the future because of some of these things,” said Johnson, who’s at his fifth different SEC school as a defensive coordinator.

“But I also think you’re seeing a gradual changing of college football. What’s deteriorating defenses more than anything is the way the offenses are practicing and the way you have to practice against them. You can’t run a fast-paced offense and be extremely physical on defense.”

It’s not just at Auburn, either. Johnson has seen it throughout college football.

“We practice against our scout team, and that deteriorates your fundamentals and deteriorates your physical toughness,” Johnson said. “I understand it because if you’re going to run that style of offense, the only way you can perfect it is to practice that way.

“But you are what you play against every day in practice. We try to hit a hit happy medium here, but it’s never going to be enough to satisfy me. We don’t tackle good backs except on Saturdays, so how good is your tackling going to be?”

At least half of the teams in the SEC are running some form of a hurry-up attack on offense, and it’s no coincidence that the offensive numbers are up.

Nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 430 yards per game in total offense. Of the five who aren’t, only Vanderbilt has a winning record. Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee all have losing records.

What’s more, nine of the 14 SEC teams are averaging more than 30 points per game. A year ago, only six averaged more than 30. And in 2011, it was only five.

It’s no secret that Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t a fan of the fast-paced offenses and being able to snap the ball before the defense is lined up or has a chance to make situational substitutions. That said, Saban is also smart enough to realize that playing that way can be a huge advantage for the offense and has even suggested the Tide could look to play faster in the future.

Ferns A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them.

-- Nick Saban
“The offenses are taking advantage of the rules that we have, whether it’s to play fast or keep the defense from being able to do some situational things that it would like to do to create an advantage for themselves,” Saban said. “A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them, whether it’s throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage and being able to block downfield or whatever these things are.

“It’s more difficult to play good defense in this day and age. I don’t know that you reconstitute how you evaluate it. But the way you try to play defense, you have to re-evaluate and try to do a better job against the things that we’re seeing now.”

Five teams in the SEC this season are allowing nearly 30 yards more per game than they did a year ago. Topping that list is Texas A&M, which has seen its total defensive average climb by 64.2 yards per game.

LSU, which lost eight starters on defense, is allowing 46.1 yards more per game than it did last season. Vanderbilt is up 38.6 yards, South Carolina 33.9 yards and Georgia 29.1 yards.

The Bulldogs were also hit with major personnel losses on defense, and their youth on that side of the ball has taken its toll. They’re giving up an average of 30.2 points per game after allowing just 19.6 a year ago.

All but three teams in the SEC this season are giving up more than 350 yards per game. But as first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops notes, some stats matter more than others.

“Different teams are so explosive, and if you hold them under a certain number of yards and a certain number of points, you feel like that’s maybe as good as you can do with certain teams,” Stoops said. “A lot of statistics matter, and as a defensive guy, every yard and every point is personal.

“Sometimes, the bottom line is just winning games.”

SEC Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
9:00
AM ET
The first week of college football is in the books, and it's time to see where we think all 14 SEC teams stack up in our weekly power rankings:

1. Alabama (1-0; LW: 1): OK, Alabama isn't perfect. Contrary to what AJ McCarron said, the offensive line looked ugly for most of the night in Alabama's win over Virginia Tech. It has to get better in a hurry. But when your defense and special teams are clicking like they were on Saturday, who needs offense?

2. South Carolina (1-0; LW: 4): Two players I've been saying to keep an eye on since the spring: Mike Davis and Shaq Roland. Both looked pretty good, especially Davis, in that opening win, and both will be fun to watch this weekend. The defensive front looked great, but can someone please give Jadeveon Clowney some vitamin C and an extra Gatorade?

3. LSU (1-0; LW: 6): Don't sleep on these Tigers. They're undervalued, but were very impressive in their 37-27 victory over a ranked TCU team in their own backyard. The defense still looks fast, and the offense racked up nearly 450 yards behind some explosive plays. The return of running back Jeremy Hill should make this team even better.

4. Texas A&M (1-0; LW: 2): Johnny Manziel looked good when he was actually playing football Saturday. He went through his progressions and didn't think "run" first. But his antics have to stop (just ask Kevin Sumlin), and that defense has to get much, much, MUCH better before Alabama rolls into town in two weeks.

5. Florida (1-0; LW: 5): It doesn't look like the Gators will miss much of a beat defensively after they suffocated Toledo and that uptempo offense. The offense? Well, it did look more polished and the passing game actually moved down the field, but the Gators were very vanilla. Expect that to change against Miami.

6. Georgia (0-1; LW: 3): We knew the defense would struggle against Clemson's high-octane offense, but the Bulldogs looked really bad in the tackling department. This group has to go back to the basics, and that isn't a good thing with physical South Carolina coming to town this weekend. Also, that offensive line has to protect Aaron Murray better because Todd Gurley can't do it all himself on offense.

7. Ole Miss (1-0; LW: 8): The future certainly looks bright in Oxford, Miss., but this program is hoping the present is just as bright. The Rebels kicked off the college football season with an electric, back-and-forth win over Vanderbilt. This offense looks built to go the distance, but depth is still a major concern. Health is key.

8. Vanderbilt (0-1; LW: 7): The Commodores lost a heartbreaker to the Rebels at home, but this team still looks as explosive as it was last year. The defense has some things to clean up, but defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should make sure that happens. Jordan Matthews has star status, but not having Chris Boyd on the other side of him hurts the offense.

9. Auburn (1-0; LW: 9): The Tigers had quite a fun opener. Both the offense and defense were up and down, but it had to be nice for Gus Malzahn to see his running game put up 295 yards on Washington State. The pass defense has some work to do and injuries won't help.

10. Missouri (1-0; LW: 11): The 58-point, 694-yard performance from the Tigers' offense looked more like what people in Columbia, Mo., expected to see more often last year. Granted, it was against Murray State, but that sort of outing will build some confidence within this group. It was good to see James Franklin and Henry Josey on the field and healthy again.

11. Arkansas (1-0; LW: 13): By looking at the box score, you'd think Bobby Petrino's offense was back in Fayetteville, Ark., after the Hogs put up 522 yards on Louisiana-Lafayette. The Hogs could run and pass, and the defense held the Ragin' Cajuns to just 274 yards. The Hogs still have a couple of cupcakes to face before things get interesting at Rutgers.

12. Tennessee (1-0; LW: 12): We really don't know what to take from Tennessee's thumping of a very overmatched Austin Peay team, but the Vols looked to have some real legs in the running game. How long that will last is a mystery, but it was a good start. Things get tougher this weekend when Western Kentucky and Bobby Petrino visit Rocky Top.

13. Mississippi State (0-1; LW: 10): That was a bad offensive performance by the Bulldogs in their 21-3 loss to Oklahoma State. Mississippi State was 2-for-16 on third downs and Tyler Russell threw for only 133 yards against a defense that ranked 113th nationally in pass defense last year. The Bulldogs held the Cowboys to just 146 passing yards, but allowed nearly 286 rushing yards.

14. Kentucky (0-1; LW: 14): That was not the opener Mark Stoops wanted or needed. The Wildcats looked overmatched against Western Kentucky and are still struggling mightily to find playmakers in the passing game. What had to really upset Stoops was that his defensive line, which was supposed to be this team's best unit, didn't get enough pressure up front and allowed the Hilltoppers to rush for more than 200 yards.
Thanks to Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, I'm more convinced than ever that you better be pretty salty when it comes to stopping the run if you want to win a championship.

That's especially true in the SEC.

Shoop pointed out during a recent visit that only one of the last 11 national champions has finished outside the top 15 nationally in rushing defense, and that was Texas in 2005. Not only that, but seven of the last 11 national champions have been ranked in the top five nationally in rushing defense.

During the SEC's streak of seven straight national championships, only twice has the team winning the title finished outside the top 10 nationally against the run. Florida was 15th in 2008, and LSU was 12th in 2007.

Of the last 10 SEC champions, nine have been ranked in the top 15 nationally against the run. The only exception was Georgia in 2005. The Bulldogs were 52nd nationally in rushing defense that season. But they were 14th nationally (and second in the SEC) with 29 forced turnovers.

"I call turnovers the great equalizer," Shoop said. "They can turn a bad defense into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one can become a championship one. The top 11 teams in turnover margin in the country last season were a combined 120-32, so there's something there."

Under Shoop, Vanderbilt has finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense each of the last two seasons. Only four other SEC schools can say that -- Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina.

Clearly, the Commodores are in good company, but Shoop would like to see them create more turnovers in 2013. They finished with 18 last season after coming up with 29 in his first season in 2011. However, they got 10 of their 18 turnovers last season in their last three games.

"We didn't create as many takeaways last year," Shoop said. "We played great third-down defense, but I think we got a little of our mojo back in those last three games."

Vanderbilt will be going for a third straight season as a top-20 defense (total defense). Alabama, Florida and LSU are the only three SEC schools to have been ranked in the top 20 in total defense each of the last three seasons. In fact, Alabama and Florida have finished in the top 20 in total defense for five consecutive seasons.

Here's a look at where the last 10 SEC champions finished nationally in rushing defense:
  • 2012 -- Alabama (1st)
  • 2011 -- LSU (5th)
  • 2010 -- Auburn (9th)
  • 2009 -- Alabama (2nd)
  • 2008 -- Florida (15th)
  • 2007 -- LSU (12th)
  • 2006 -- Florida (5th)
  • 2005 -- Georgia (52nd)
  • 2004 -- Auburn (12th)
  • 2003 -- LSU (3rd)
Jared Morse, Vanderbilt's most experienced returning defensive tackle, is currently not in school and won't be a part of the team this semester after a violation of university rules.

Coach James Franklin said Tuesday he's hopeful that Morse will be able to return in the fall, but added, "It's out of our hands, and we'll see how things play out." The Commodores open spring practice on Friday.

Depth at defensive tackle is a concern for the Commodores, who lost seniors Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter in the middle. Morse, a rising senior, started six games last season and was fourth on the team with nine tackles for loss.

One of the moves the Commodores are making this spring to help bolster the middle of the defensive line is moving redshirt freshman Adam Butler from offensive line to defensive tackle.

"That gives us another 6-3 plus, 300-pound guy inside," Franklin said. "The game of football, and in the SEC, is played up front. We're starting to finally see some legitimate SEC depth along the offensive line, and this will give us the ability to provide more SEC depth on the defensive line."

The Commodores are also moving redshirt freshman Torey Agee from defensive end to tackle. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is eager to see junior Vince Taylor on the practice field this spring. Shoop said the 305-pound Taylor bench-pressed 450 pounds and ran under 5 seconds in the 40-yard dash this winter.

Junior Barron Dixon is recovering from an injury and also won't be going through contact this spring. He will be a major factor at defensive tackle in the fall, and prized freshman signee Jay Woods arrives this summer. Woods was ranked by ESPN as the No. 17 tackle prospect nationally and among the top 20 prospects in the state of Georgia.

Some other position moves that Franklin announced Tuesday were sophomore Josh Grady moving back to quarterback from receiver, redshirt freshman Cory Batey moving to safety from receiver, sophomore Derek King to running back from cornerback and sophomore Jacquese Kirk to cornerback from receiver. Grady was recruited as a quarterback, but played last season as a slot receiver. He's an exceptional athlete.

"He wanted an opportunity to go back to quarterback and be able to compete for the position, and from an intelligence standpoint and mentality standpoint, he's a winner," Franklin said. "It wouldn't surprise me what he could do there."

Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels and redshirt freshman Patton Robinette are the front-runners to replace Jordan Rodgers at quarterback. Carta-Samuels was Rodgers' backup last season.
The SEC will have six new defensive coordinators in 2013, which includes a couple of coaches who were promoted.

D.J. Durkin was promoted at Florida after serving as linebackers coach and special teams coordinator the past three years. Geoff Collins was promoted at Mississippi State to run the defense. He was co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach the past two years for the Bulldogs.

When you survey the lineup of defensive coordinators in the SEC, it’s a reminder of how important defense is in this league.

During the SEC’s streak of seven straight national championships, only once has the team winning the title finished outside the top 10 nationally in total defense (Auburn was 60th in 2010).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that SEC schools pay top dollar for their defensive coordinators. In fact, 10 of the 14 are scheduled to make $500,000 or more next season.

Included in that group are three of the four newcomers, although Auburn’s Ellis Johnson is hardly new to the SEC. Johnson, who will earn $800,000 on the Plains, has made previous stops at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina as defensive coordinator.

Arkansas’ Chris Ash is set to earn $550,000 and Kentucky’s D.J. Elliot $500,000.

Currently, the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the SEC is LSU’s John Chavis, who’s scheduled to make $1.1 million in 2013.

However, look for Alabama’s Kirby Smart to get a bump from the $950,000 he made last season and join Chavis in the $1 million-plus club.

South Carolina’s Lorenzo Ward was recently given a new three-year deal that will pay him $650,000 per year.

Also, Texas A&M’s Mark Snyder is in line to get a significant raise from the $500,000 he made last season. His name came up in a couple of head coaching searches this past December, including Kent State.

Below is a look at the reported salary figures for the SEC defensive coordinators. Vanderbilt’s Bob Shoop isn’t listed because Vanderbilt is a private institution and doesn’t release salary information:
  • LSU’s John Chavis $1.1 million
  • Alabama’s Kirby Smart $950,000
  • Georgia’s Todd Grantham $850,000
  • Auburn’s Ellis Johnson $800,000
  • South Carolina’s Lorenzo Ward $650,000
  • Arkansas’ Chris Ash $550,000
  • Missouri’s Dave Steckel $550,000
  • Ole Miss’ Dave Wommack $550,000
  • Texas A&M’s Mark Snyder $500,000
  • Kentucky’s D.J. Eliot $500,000
  • Florida’s D.J. Durkin $490,000
  • Tennessee’s John Jancek $470,000
  • Mississippi State’s Geoff Collins $325,000

Vanderbilt's ascent fueled by defense

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
3:05
PM ET
Vanderbilt’s ascent the last two seasons under James Franklin can be attributed to several factors.

But right there at the top of the list is the fact that the Commodores have played the kind of defense that it takes to win in the SEC.

In fact, Vanderbilt is one of only five SEC schools to have finished in the top 20 nationally each of the past two seasons in total defense. The Commodores were 19th this season after finishing 18th in 2011.

They’re in exclusive company. The other four schools in the league to field top-20 defenses each of the past two seasons were Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina.

Keep in mind that Vanderbilt finished 93rd nationally in total defense in 2010, the year before Franklin arrived and brought in Bob Shoop as his defensive coordinator. The Commodores were 56th nationally in total defense in 2009 and 30th in 2008, the year they went 7-6 and won the Music City Bowl under Bobby Johnson.

It’s yet another reminder that any kind of real progress in this league begins and ends with defense.

The Commodores also head into the 2013 season with one of the most impressive defensive streaks in the country.

Vanderbilt has gone 455 plays outside the red zone of not giving up a touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the longest active streak in the country among FBS teams. The last time the Commodores gave up a touchdown outside the red zone was against Florida in the sixth game this past season when Jeff Driskel scored on a 70-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame owned the longest active streak heading into the Discover BCS National Championship. The Irish had gone 628 consecutive plays outside the red zone in which its opponent had not scored a touchdown, but that streak was snapped when Amari Cooper scored on a 34-yard reception in Alabama's 42-14 win over Notre Dame.

Vanderbilt's formula under Shoop is stopping the run, eliminating the big plays and taking the ball away. Of course, that's the formula for all good defenses.

Shoop notes that the 70-yard touchdown run by Driskel was the Commodores' last defensive snap (other than a kneel-down) against the Gators. That was also the last loss by the Commodores, who went on to win seven straight and finish with their first nine-win season since 1915.

"If you can eliminate those chunk or explosive plays -- no balls over your head, keep the ball in front and inside and pursue and tackle -- you can win," Shoop said.

Next step the hardest for Vanderbilt

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
12:40
PM ET
Lost in all the chatter about South Carolina not looking like a top-10 team on Thursday night in its 17-13 escape at Vanderbilt is the fact that just maybe the Commodores are going to be a tough out for everybody they play this season.

In fact, I think they'll surpass the two SEC wins they managed a year ago in James Franklin's first season and will get back to a bowl game.

They're as salty as ever on defense, and you have to love the way they keep attacking. They're not very big up front, and Chase Garnham will get more comfortable at middle linebacker as the season goes on. But this is another defense under Bob Shoop that's going to create a bunch of turnovers, and boy, will they hit you.

The offensive line also held its own against a South Carolina defensive line that was supposed to be one of the SEC's best. The Commodores helped a lot (and, yes, held some) on South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but let's also give left tackle Wesley Johnson some credit for standing in there and not allowing Clowney to take over the game. In the second half, we barely even heard Clowney's name.

[+] EnlargeD. J. Swearinger andJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireD. J. Swearinger, right, got away with what appeared to be pass interference against Jordan Matthews on a fourth-down play in the final minutes of Thursday's game.
On further review, the killer for the Commodores was that pass interference call in the final minutes that wasn't called. When I saw the play live, I thought Jordan Matthews should have caught the ball, but replays clearly show that South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger yanked Matthews' left hand away before the ball got there, and Matthews was reduced to trying to catch the ball with one hand.

Franklin was barking at the official from the sideline to throw the flag, but wasn't biting afterward when asked about the no-call.

"You did know the SEC just came out with very clear rules about talking about the officials and what happens after games," Franklin said. "Trying to get me fined?"

The important thing now is that Vanderbilt find a way to bounce back next week at Northwestern. Because after a home game against Presbyterian the following week, the Commodores go on the road for two straight SEC games against Georgia and Missouri. They don't want to be 1-2 going into that stretch.

I realize that playing teams close and simply not being able to get it done in the fourth quarter has been a Vanderbilt curse since long before I started covering the SEC.

But there's something to be said for learning how to win the close games. That's the next step for these Commodores. Franklin has absolutely changed the culture. He's recruited better talent. He's upgraded the depth. This team plays with an edge that is a direct reflection of its head coach.

Now comes the hardest part -- turning close losses into close wins.

The Commodores have now lost seven of their last eight SEC games going back to last season, and their last five losses have been by a combined 23 points.

Those are the ones that hurt the most. You could see it in the faces of the Vanderbilt players as they left the field Thursday night. They genuinely expected to win that game.

It hasn't always been that way on West End.

"We're just glad to get out of here with a win," said South Carolina tight end Justice Cunningham, who can attest to how hard the Commodores hit after getting his helmet knocked off on a catch over the middle. "There will be a lot of teams this season that leave this place with a loss. Vanderbilt's legit."

Shoop, Vanderbilt D turn the page

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
1:00
PM ET
Vanderbilt finished 18th nationally last season in total defense.

As the Commodores’ second-year defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, is quick to point out, that was good enough for sixth in the SEC ... or middle of the pack.

“That’s the reality in this league,” Shoop said.

The other reality in this league is that there’s no resting on your defensive laurels.

As good as the Commodores were last season on defense, as sound as they were and as proficient as they were at taking the ball away from opponents, it all starts anew Thursday night when South Carolina visits Vanderbilt Stadium.

“Each team has its own identity, and you can’t ever take it for granted that because you did it last year, you’re going to do it again this year,” Shoop said. “Each level of defense has its own piece.”

The Commodores are missing some key pieces from a year ago, notably middle linebacker Chris Marve, defensive end Tim Fugger and cornerback Casey Hayward.

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMIVanderbilt's defense was aggressive last season -- and could be more so this season, coordinator Bob Shoop said.
Chase Garnham moves over from his outside linebacker spot to fill in for Marve in the middle. The Commodores think fellow junior Walker May can be that finisher off the edge that Fugger was last season, and senior Trey Wilson moves into Hayward’s stopper role at cornerback.

“One of the biggest things we’ll miss is Casey’s playmaking ability because he had such a unique ability to intercept passes,” Shoop said.

Hayward had seven of the Commodores’ 19 interceptions last season, and that's a tribute to his ball skills and nose for the ball. But it’s also a tribute to the way Shoop likes to play defense.

The Commodores never quit attacking and are masterful at bringing pressure from all different angles. Although some of the pieces might be different, the approach won't change this season.

In fact, Shoop said he thinks there’s enough speed and versatility on this defense that the Commodores might take their creativity to another level.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are interchangeable, and this group might be even more suited to pressuring, believe it or not,” Shoop said. “Our linebackers and safeties are all basically the same guys. They all run around and are aggressive and fast.

“We may do it a little differently than we did a year ago, but our defense is built on running to the ball and never-ending pressure. Coach [George] Barlow, our defensive backs coach, always says that pressure makes the pipes burst.”

Shoop’s transformation of Vanderbilt's defense shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did it at William & Mary and put together some of the top defenses in the FCS ranks, which no doubt attracted the interest of James Franklin.

The Commodores allowed 9.6 fewer points and 96.4 fewer yards per game last season than they did the year before and intercepted 10 more passes.

Shoop, who earned an economics degree from Yale and was the head coach at Columbia University from 2003 to 2005, also isn’t afraid to think outside the box.

During the offseason, Shoop visited with a former SEC defensive coordinator also known for his innovative schemes -- current Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

So who knows what Shoop might dial up Thursday against the Gamecocks, who will have a new look of their own. Running back Marcus Lattimore returns after missing the last half of last season with a knee injury, and he’ll be in the lineup with junior quarterback Connor Shaw. They played only 1½ games together last season before Lattimore was injured.

“It’s really more difficult preparing for them now because you look at the film and see Connor playing so well at the end of last season and doing so many good things, and then you add Marcus to the equation,” Shoop said. “It’s a challenge. But like any opening game, it’s more about us than it is them.

“It’s on us doing things well, and it’s on me and the staff to adjust during the course of the game.”
We're always looking for the next best thing. The coaching world isn't any different.

Who's the next Urban Meyer? The next Chris Petersen? What about another Brady Hoke?

Who's that next great assistant who rises up the ranks and takes over a major program ... and succeeds?

I'm not completely sure, but I have a few ideas. Here are some coaches lurking in the SEC who could be on their way to bigger and better things or are ready to take the next step with their current teams:

Head coaches
  • James Franklin, Vanderbilt: Franklin became the only first-year coach in Vandy history to guide the Commodores to a bowl game. He surpassed the program's win totals in each of its previous two seasons and signed arguably the school's best recruiting class in 2012. He brought attitude, confidence and a bit of swagger to the program. He could have left after one year but is really looking to turn things around at Vanderbilt.
  • Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: Bulldogs fans probably don't like hearing this, but Mullen is becoming a hot name among the coaching ranks. In his three seasons in Starkville, he has guided Mississippi State to two straight bowl wins. In 2010, he led the Bulldogs to nine wins for the first time since 1999. Mullen says he is happy in Starkville, but if he continues to win, bigger schools won't hesitate to go after him.
Assistants
  • Shawn Elliott, South Carolina offensive line coach/running game coordinator: Steve Spurrier has raved about Elliott's impact on offense and bringing in the zone read package. Elliott has done wonders for South Carolina's offensive line, which was a continual sore spot in Spurrier's early years at the school. Elliott is also a dogged recruiter. Having grown up in Camden, S.C., Elliott is somebody to watch when Spurrier hangs it up. If he doesn't get that job, somebody is going to snap him up.
  • Rodney Garner, Georgia defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator: He has been at Georgia for a while and has been wooed several times by other schools. LSU went after him several years ago, and Lane Kiffin was interested in bringing him to Tennessee. In the past 12 years, he has coached plenty of NFL talent, including four first-round draft picks. He has consistently been one of the league's best recruiters as well.
  • Todd Grantham, Georgia defensive coordinator/associate head coach: He could start getting more looks for head-coaching gigs. He has vast NFL experience, including being a defensive coordinator at that level, and more schools are looking for coaches with NFL experience. Grantham has proven himself as a recruiter and worked under two of the best in the college ranks -- Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Nick Saban at Michigan State. He has made a tremendous difference in turning around Georgia's defense and has an edge about him that successful head coaches possess.
  • Chris Kiffin, Ole Miss defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator for defense: He is one of the bright young names among the assistant ranks. As the defensive line coach at Arkansas State, he coached up Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Joiner, who tied for third in the nation in sacks and 10th in tackles for loss. Arkansas State also led the conference and ranked eighth nationally in tackles for loss (7.62 per game) and tied for 15th in sacks (2.69 per game). He is a tremendous recruiter and helped bring in a solid defensive class in a short amount of time this spring.
  • Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M offensive coordinator: After being a standout quarterback at Texas Tech, he is considered one of the top young assistants in college football. He came over with Kevin Sumlin from Houston, where he helped guide the Cougars' offense to its record-setting year in 2011. Houston led the nation in total offense, passing offense and scoring in 2011 behind quarterback Case Keenum. The Cougars averaged 599.1 total yards per game, including 450.1 through the air, while scoring more than 49 points per game.
  • Paul Petrino, Arkansas offensive coordinator: He came over to help run Arkansas' offense with his brother, but after Bobby Petrino was fired this spring, Paul Petrino assumed the role as primary playcaller. In 2010, he guided an Illinois offense that broke school records for total points (423) and points per game (32.54). The Illini averaged 42.1 points and 448.9 total yards over the final seven games of the season. If he can keep Arkansas' offense going this year, his phone might start ringing a little more.
  • Bob Shoop, Vanderbilt defensive coordinator/safeties coach: He has been a head coach at Columbia and is innovative on defense, playing the kind of attacking style that attracts great players. He helped orchestrate one of the most impressive defensive turnarounds in the country last year, as Vanderbilt ranked ninth nationally in pass defense efficiency and 18th in total defense. Vandy's defense also ranked among the nation's top units in interceptions, points allowed and rush defense.
  • Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator: He is one of the best defensive coordinators around, and it seems like only a matter of time before he is a head coach somewhere. Smart has already passed on a few head-coaching opportunities. He is making $950,000 a year and is in a position to be picky with coaching jobs.
  • Trooper Taylor, Auburn wide receivers coach/assistant head coach: He is one of the hottest and most successful recruiters in the SEC. He brought in and trained some elite receivers at Oklahoma State and Tennessee before making his way to Auburn. He is continuing that trend and has turned Emory Blake into one of the SEC's best pass-catchers. He was co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, and if Auburn's receivers make another jump, Taylor could be waving his towel elsewhere soon.
  • Frank Wilson, LSU running backs coach/recruiting coordinator: He has emerged as one of the sport's top recruiters. As a running backs coach, he has done a tremendous job with the Tigers. Last season, LSU averaged 202.6 rushing yards per game and tied a school record with 35 rushing touchdowns. Three backs eclipsed the 500-yard rushing mark. Wilson commands tremendous respect from his players.
  • David Yost, Missouri offensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator: He has been at Missouri for 11 years, but he has to start getting more attention as an exceptional playcaller. He has a great eye for talent and pointing out mismatches in his spread scheme. In 2011, Mizzou ranked ninth nationally in rushing (244 yards per game) and had one of the most balanced offenses, as Mizzou was one of only two schools in the country to average at least 230 yards rushing and passing in each game.
Six SEC teams finished the 2011 season ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense.

It was most of the usual suspects, too -- Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

But right there at No. 18 nationally was Vanderbilt. First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop came in and did a masterful job. He inherited some veteran leaders and mixed in his aggressive, innovative approach, and the Commodores played the kind of defense that steered them to their fifth bowl appearance in school history.

[+] EnlargeJavon Marshall
AP Photo/Mark HumphreySafety Javon Marshall is expected to be among Vanderbilt's defensive leaders entering next season.
Shoop has a sharp mind for the game. For that matter, he has a sharp mind -- period. He earned his degree in economics at Yale while playing both football and baseball. He also coached at Yale as an assistant and served as the head coach at Columbia from 2003-05.

He knows his stuff, and just as importantly, his players know that he knows his stuff.

So when he looked them in the eye this spring and told them that last season’s defensive performance wasn’t good enough, they sat straight up and listened … and then took that as their challenge on the practice field.

“I told our guys, ‘What does 18th in the country in total defense get you? Sixth in the SEC,’” Shoop recounted. “That’s where we were. That’s what it gets you, a 2-6 conference record. This is big-boy football. When you look at it in the grand scheme of things, we have a long way to go.”

Not only that, but some of the Commodores’ top playmakers on defense from a year ago have departed. Middle linebacker Chris Marve is gone, and so are cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Sean Richardson and defensive end Tim Fugger.

“This 2012 version of the Vanderbilt defense will be different,” Shoop said. “We’re searching for leadership. We’re still going to be running to the ball as well as anybody in the country, and pressure. We’re a high-pressure defense. But some new playmakers are going to have to emerge.”

The good thing is that Shoop likes what he saw this spring. Up front, Walker May and Rob Lohr are both poised for big seasons, and Chase Garnham made a nice transition to middle linebacker after playing on the outside last season. Trey Wilson has a chance to be that next premier Vanderbilt cornerback, and Shoop thought safety Javon Marshall was one of the more underrated players in the SEC last season. Lohr and Marshall missed the spring while recovering from injuries.

Shoop thinks some of the incoming freshmen will have to help, particularly in the defensive line. The Commodores played 10 guys up front last season, and there wasn’t a guy on the defensive line who played more than 45 snaps a game.

Freshman linebacker Darreon Herring enrolled early and went through spring practice, which is a rarity at Vanderbilt. Shoop also thinks incoming freshman linebacker Jake Sealand can help this fall.

Vanderbilt had 29 takeaways last season, which was fourth in the SEC. It also scored five defensive touchdowns. Shoop said it’s imperative that the unit is equally opportunistic in 2012.

“Takeaways are the great equalizer,” Shoop said. “They can turn a bad defense into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one into a championship defense.”

While some of the faces will be different, Wilson said the way the Commodores play defense next season will be exactly the same.

“We can’t be focused on making mistakes,” said Wilson, who had three interceptions last season. “If you’re going to do it, do it full speed. The worst mistake you can make on a football field is slowing down and letting a play happen.

“We have a lot of guys who played last year, so it’s not like they’re new guys.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES