NCF Nation: Chase Garnham
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.
“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 putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
There's no question a new energy surrounds this program, and there's certainly not a feeling of contentment just because Vanderbilt went to a bowl game last season in James Franklin's first year on the job.
Franklin is bringing in the highest-rated signing class in school history. Most of those guys won't be on campus until the summer, but Franklin envisions even more competition for positions than last season.
And he means everywhere.
"We still don't have the depth we need, but we're going to have competition," Franklin said. "I want everybody in the program to feel like there's no favoritism and no politics. Even for the guys who played last year, and they have a leg up, but you're going to have to earn your job every day. That's important, and getting these freshmen in here and allowing them to have an opportunity to compete and play will help us."
One of the hottest battles could be at quarterback. Jordan Rodgers stepped in at midseason a year ago and provided a huge boost to the offense, but Austyn Carta-Samuels is eligible after transferring from Wyoming and is pushing hard this spring.
"The sky's the limit for us with the competitive nature that coach Franklin has created," said Carta-Samuels, whose grandfather, Tom, played baseball at Vanderbilt. "That's why I came here, and you know you're going to get an opportunity to play if you're the best player."
Carta-Samuels had 2,094 yards in total offense in 2010 and started 11 games that season for Wyoming. He said he visited Vanderbilt out of high school and that there's no comparison in the caliber of players here now as compared to 2008 when he was visiting.
Two of the Commodores' priorities this spring, according to Franklin, are throwing the ball more accurately than they did last season on offense and not giving up as many big plays on defense. They completed just 51.7 percent of their passes, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said they gave up 46 big plays (a running play of at least 15 yards or passing play of at least 25 yards).
Shoop said the Commodores' goal is no more than two big plays per game.
"Where we fell short was we gave up too many big plays," Shoop said. "Five percent of the snaps against us accounted for one-third of the total offense."
Replacing middle linebacker Chris Marve and his leadership will also be a chore. Shoop said a key to the Commodores' success last season (they finished 18th nationally in total defense) was the way Marve bought into Shoop and his defense.
Junior Chase Garnham is moving into Marve's middle linebacker spot, but it will take several players to fill the leadership void created by Marve's departure. Defensive end Walker May, defensive tackle Rob Lohr, safety Javon Marshall and Wilson are all ready to take that step.
"We're light years ahead of where we were last year," Shoop said. "Our first group out there practicing right now ... I like the way they're practicing. Our second group, those guys are a lot of redshirt guys and scout-team guys. They're figuring it out."
Freshman linebacker Darreon Herring is an early enrollee and going through spring practice. Shoop thinks he has an excellent chance to be in the rotation next season. The same goes for freshman linebacker Jake Sealand, who will be on campus this summer.
In keeping with that theme, we take a look at the 10 best true sophomores in the SEC this season.
These are guys who played as true freshmen last season in the league and are now in their second seasons, which eliminates transfers and third-year sophomores who had the benefit of a redshirt season.
Here’s what we came up with. The players are listed alphabetically:
Arkansas safety Eric Bennett: After playing cornerback as a true freshman, Bennett has settled in at safety this season for the Hogs. He’s fourth on the team with 53 tackles and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. As Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said, Bennett has played big in big games.
Auburn running back Michael Dyer: He’s been the centerpiece of the Tigers’ offense all season and is 11 yards away from his second straight 1,000-yard season. Dyer ranks second in the SEC in rushing with 989 yards and leads the league with 186 carries. If he stays healthy, he's going to break a ton of records.
Florida safety Matt Elam: The Gators were frighteningly young in their secondary coming into the season, but Elam has been a stabilizing presence. He’s always been a big hitter and has gotten better in coverage. He’s second on the team with 53 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, and also has two interceptions.
Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham: He’s missed the last two games with an abdominal strain, or his numbers would be even more impressive. Garnham is tied for second on the team with 44 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, and has also forced a fumble. He’s a three-down linebacker who covers in space as well as he plays the run.
Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier: He showed flashes a year ago, but has emerged this season as one of the SEC’s premier big-play defenders. Lemonier is second in the league with 6.5 sacks and also ranks among the league leaders with 10.5 tackles for loss.
Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry: The Rebels have been decimated by injuries on defense, and even though Marry’s only a sophomore, he’s had to step up and be a leader. He’s also been plenty productive with 69 total tackles, tying him for seventh in the SEC. His 40 solo stops rank him third in the league.
LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu: The Honey Badger has slowed down a little bit since his red-hot start, and there was also the one-game suspension a few weeks ago. But there’s no denying his ability to make plays. He’s tied for the SEC lead with four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, two of which he’s turned into touchdowns.
LSU safety Eric Reid: The No.1 Tigers are loaded with talented young players, and Reid is yet another. He’s second on the team with 49 total tackles. His interception last week where he took the ball away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams was the play of the year so far in the SEC.
Tennessee receiver Da’Rick Rogers: It’s hurt him to lose both Bray at quarterback and Hunter on the other side at receiver, but Rogers still leads the league in catches (50) and is tied with two other players for second in the SEC with seven touchdown receptions. He's averaging 15.6 yards per catch.
LSU running back Spencer Ware: The Tigers have a deep backfield stable, but Ware has been the workhorse. His suspension against Auburn may end up costing him a chance at 1,000 yards, but he’s a perfect fit for LSU’s offense with the way he runs with power and the way he punishes defenders.
“I don’t know the guy that well. I think he came from William & Mary, but he’s doing a super job,” Spurrier said.
That guy is Bob Shoop, and he did indeed come from William & Mary.
“We want teams to think we’re playing with 13 or 14 guys on defense,” said Vanderbilt junior cornerback Trey Wilson, who has three of the Commodores’ FBS-leading 10 interceptions this season. “You never know where we might come from. We might drop in from the sky.”
One of the reasons Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin went and got Shoop from William & Mary was how creative Shoop had been, not to mention how successful he’d been.
Shoop is one of the few guys on Franklin’s staff that he didn’t know that well. But Franklin knew the caliber of ball-hawking defenses Shoop had put on the field in his four seasons at William & Mary when he transformed the Tribe into one of the top-rated defensive clubs in the FCS.
“He had a year where he was a defensive coordinator where they finished No. 1 in almost every single defensive category,” Franklin said. “I don’t care what league you’re in. That’s hard to do.”
Granted, the Commodores have only played one SEC game under Shoop, but the results have been the same as they were during his time at William & Mary.
They lead the SEC with 12 forced turnovers and eight sacks and rank 10th nationally in total defense, allowing 250 yards per game.
In three games, the Commodores have scored as many touchdowns on defense (three) as they’ve given up on defense.
Shoop, a former head coach at Columbia, is the epitome of the analytical type. He earned his economics degree at Yale and loves crunching numbers.
But he said the secret to Vanderbilt’s success on defense thus far doesn’t boil down to scheme. Rather, it’s how hard the Commodores have played, how smart they’ve played and how opportunistic they’ve been.
“I give credit to the players,” Shoop said. “The players have made the plays when the opportunities have presented themselves. When the ball’s in the air, we’ve attacked it really well. We’ve gone up for it and challenged for it.”
In the very first meeting Shoop had with his players this season, he showed them a 20-play highlight tape of defenses returning interceptions for touchdowns. There were clips on there from his William & Mary days. There were also clips on there from past Super Bowls.
“Turnovers are the great equalizer,” Shoop said. “They can turn a mediocre defense into a good one, a good one into a great one and a great one into a championship one. That’s something we’ve preached and emphasized.”
The players love playing in his system, too.
“We come from all over the place,” said sophomore linebacker Chase Garnham, who's tied for third on the team in total tackles with 13. “I’m sure it’s really tough on the offense, all the different angles we come from. It’s very aggressive, unique and creative. I like it a lot.”
Wilson, part of a secondary that rates right up there with any in the SEC, said Shoop is continually pounding home the importance of doing the little things right.
“That’s what separates the championship defenses,” Wilson said.
As impressive as the Commodores have been through three games, Shoop is well aware that the stakes are about to go up.
It starts this week against South Carolina and the Gamecocks’ twosome of Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery.
Shoop joked that it hit him last Thursday night in watching LSU’s 19-6 victory over Mississippi State on television that he no longer gets to just watch the SEC’s collection of premier athletes from afar.
“I’d always watched the SEC on the Thursday night games as a casual observer, but not actually thinking, ‘Holy crap, I’m playing against these guys,’ ” Shoop quipped. “I watched that game and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m right in the thick of this.’
“I watched those guys play and said, ‘This ain’t William & Mary anymore.’ ”
No, it’s not, but it’s also not the same old Vanderbilt.
The Commodores are talented and active in their defensive front, have one of the most productive inside linebackers in the league in Chris Marve and a secondary that allows Shoops to bring an assortment of pressure. They're also experienced on defense.
The Commodores have a saying on defense before every game.
“We always say three-and-out first series and first-quarter shutout,” Shoop said. “Through three games, that’s where we are. We’re on schedule. We’re not ahead, not behind, but we’re right on schedule.
“Now, we get the meat of the schedule, and we’ve got to get going. All we’ve done is get that first-quarter shutout, and we have to continue to go from there.”