NCF Nation: Rob Lohr

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.”

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 3

September, 12, 2011
9/12/11
2:15
PM ET
It’s our weekly look at who and what are hot around the SEC and who and what aren’t so hot:

GLOWING EMBERS

Mark Richt’s seat: Yes, I know this is a predictable one, and I don’t necessarily agree with it, but there’s no getting around the fact that Richt is in the deepest hole of his head-coaching career. The one thing the Bulldogs couldn’t do to start this season was go 0-2. At least that was the thinking coming in. Well, they’re 0-2 and banged-up at linebacker. The schedule is really pretty manageable the rest of the way, and what’s going to be critical for Richt is winning some games that count. In other words, he doesn’t need to lose to Florida, doesn’t need to lose to Tennessee and doesn’t need to lose to Auburn. What’s encouraging for the Bulldogs is that they played much better on defense this past Saturday in their 45-42 loss to South Carolina, and freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell is a guy they can ride on offense. Richt has his work cut out, no question, and he’s given the fans who want him out even more ammunition with a 0-2 start. But we’ve only played two games. Can we at least see how the entire season plays out before we start sending moving fans to the guy's house? I think he’s earned that.

HOT

Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray: The concern last season as a freshman was his completion percentage. Well, he’s completing 78.5 percent of his passes in his first two games this season with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s now thrown 22 touchdown passes in his last seven games dating back to a year ago.

NOT

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s orange pants: If you get anywhere near them, make sure you have your sunglasses. They rate right up there with some of those outlandish trousers Rodney Dangerfield wore in “Caddyshack.”

HOT

Florida’s defense: In two games, the Gators have allowed just one field goal and are holding opponents to an average of 174.5 total yards. The Gators haven’t had to show much, either, on defense in their first two games, but you can bet Will Muschamp will break out a few new blitzes and such this week when Tennessee comes to town.

NOT

Arkansas receiver Greg Childs: He’s not going to stay this quiet for long. He’s too good of a player. But Childs has caught just two passes for 29 yards and no touchdowns the first two weeks. He’s coming off that torn patellar tendon from a year ago, so it may be a while before we see him all the way back.

HOT

Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard: He’s running like a guy who feels like he has a lot to prove. Ballard was overshadowed by some of the backs in this league last season. But not anymore. He leads the SEC in rushing with 301 yards and has scored four touchdowns.

NOT

NCAA: The NCAA gets a lot of unwarranted heat, but it’s time that some of these punishments it's handing down to players are at least consistent. Don’t suspend a kid like Sharrif Floyd for two games when he’s just trying to find a place to sleep at night and then let others play on just because there’s a loophole in the rules … or a big bowl game coming up.

HOT

Vanderbilt defensive tackle Rob Lohr: He was a one-man wrecking crew in the middle for the Commodores in their 24-21 win over Connecticut. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound junior had four tackles for loss and a pass deflection and was a big reason UConn managed just 193 yards of total offense.

NOT

Auburn’s defense: Auburn has flirted with giving up 1,000 yards on defense in two games. The Tigers are ranked 111th nationally in total defense, giving up an average of 489.5 yards per game. They’re giving up yards in chunks and making critical errors. Yet, somehow, the defending champs have managed to win.

FREEZER BURN

Kentucky’s passing game: It’s been a rocky start for junior quarterback Morgan Newton, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of help, either. The Wildcats are ranked 115th nationally in passing offense through the first two weeks. They’re averaging just 105.5 passing yards per game, and Newton is completing just 44.4 percent of his passes. He’s thrown four interceptions and two touchdowns. The other part of this story is his receivers, who’ve had a serious case of the dropsies. Dropped passes were a problem in the spring. They were a problem in the preseason, and they’ve been a problem the first two games. The Wildcats also haven’t protected as well as they did a year ago and have given up six sacks after giving up just 19 in 13 games in 2010. It’s a fact that Kentucky is 2-0. It’s also a fact that the Wildcats need to get a lot better in the passing game if they’re going to extend their bowl streak.
Today we look at the big uglies that cause all the mayhem in the trenches. The SEC consistently spits out nasty defensive linemen and this year has more of an athletic feel.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a defensive line that would make any offensive line shutter. Plus, incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney comes in as the top high school player in the country and could be one of the best ends in the league this fall. Devin Taylor leads the group at end and was second on the team with 7.5 sacks as a sophomore. Helping on the outside is Melvin Ingram, who plays inside on passing downs, and led South Carolina with nine sacks a year ago. Senior Travian Robertson, who came off injury to get four sacks last year, is solid in the middle as well.

[+] EnlargeDevin Taylor
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDevin Taylor made a habit of harassing quarterbacks last season.
2. Arkansas: The Razorbacks might have the best pass-rushing group Arkansas has seen in a while. Things revolve around defensive end Jake Bequette, who was one of the more unheralded players in the league last year, despite having seven sacks. On the other side of the line is Tenarius Wright, who will make up the second part of a formidable outside duo in Fayetteville with his speed and athleticism. In the middle, there are plenty of options. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones missed spring due to injury, but will be back this fall and there’s a wealth of depth behind them. Junior college transfer Robert Thomas might be the best and most athletic option in the middle is primed to break out.

3. LSU: There are some questions about the experience the Tigers bring back, but no one will question the talent and athleticism in Baton Rouge. Sam Montgomery is back at defensive end, after suffering a serious knee injury. He hasn’t played much, but the coaches believe he’s got what it takes to be a top end in this league. Kendrick Adams started 11 games last year at end, while Lavar Edwards filled in for Montgomery. Ego Ferguson redshirted last year, but should get a ton of playing time in the middle this fall. He is already one of the most athletic tackles in the SEC. Don’t forget about five-star early enrollee Anthony Johnson, who made very strong impressions on his coaches this spring and will be in the rotation inside.

4. Florida: This unit was criticized for lacking toughness last season, but will be full of that and even more athleticism in 2011. Jaye Howard is returning from spring ankle surgery and is already considered a top defensive tackle prospect in next year’s NFL draft. Alongside him are youngsters Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley. Floyd was the most consistent of the much-ballyhooed freshman class last fall, while Easley struggled with attitude problems. Easley has rebounded and both excelled this spring. Omar Hunter is finally healthy and will share time with Floyd at noseguard and senior William Green will occupy an end spot. This group is even better when Ronald Powell lines up at end in the 4-3.

5. Alabama: On paper, there are a few questions with this group, but it’s hard to drop Alabama very far on this list. The 3-4 scheme will have senior Josh Chapman at noseguard. Chapman started 12 games in the middle last fall, totaling 31 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Damion Square will compete for time on the outside, and since returning from his ACL injury, he’s gained a lot more playing confidence and could be a budding star in the league. Junior college transfers Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams will compete for time on the line as well, while sophomore Ed Stinson will stay at end after starting last season at Jack linebacker.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have arguably the top returning tackle tandem in the SEC. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are the behemoths in the middle who combined for 53 tackles, 13 for loss and five sacks last year. Finding any sort of inside running game against Mississippi State will be extremely tough. Developing a pass-rusher is the next step for the Bulldogs’ staff. Sean Ferguson occupies one side, but the other is still up for grabs. Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell battled for the spot this spring, but neither has really pushed ahead.

7. Georgia: There is a lot of talent in Athens, but there could be a lot of movement on the line. JUCO transfer John Jenkins is the big -- and we mean big -- name up front and he’s yet to play a down in the SEC. He arrives with a ton of hype, but is perfect at noseguard in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. DeAngelo Tyson moves to his natural position outside after playing noseguard last year. Kwame Geathers played in the middle this spring, but could be usurped for Jenkins this fall and move outside. Abry Jones is still maturing after moving to end and recording 34 tackles including 3.5 for loss last season and had a 16-tackle performance against Georgia Tech.

8. Auburn: The Tigers must replace three starters this season. Inside, Auburn is talented but inexperienced with Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker having 13 combined tackles from a year ago. There’s less concern on the outside with lone returning starter Nosa Eguae on one side and sophomore Corey Lemonier on the other. Eguae might have more experience with 11 starts, but Lemonier appears to be more athletic and should be near the top of the defensive end pool this year. After that, the Tigers are young across the board.

9. Tennessee: The Volunteers’ line will grow with senior Malik Jackson running things in the middle. He had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago and some think he’ll be even better this fall. A lot will also be expected from incoming JUCO transfer Maurice Couch. He’s pretty athletic at 6-foot-4, 327 pounds and he’ll be greatly needed, considering the dismissal of Montori Hughes. Jacques Smith has All-SEC potential and will hold one of the end spots. After that, Tennessee has some young, but encouragingly talented bodies at each position.

10. Ole Miss: Some of the best news of the spring coming out of Oxford was the return of Kentrell Lockett at defensive end. Lockett was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will not only be the Rebels’ top lineman but possibly their best defensive player. After that, the questions roll in with four tackles gone and youth coming in. Tackle Justin Smith has yet to really emerge as the All-SEC talent he was expected to be and Ole Miss is smaller up front. JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena could add some size in the middle. Gerald Rivers returns to get time at end, but has played in just 15 career games in two years.

11. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a strength for the Commodores last year until injuries hit. Still, Vanderbilt returns three starters. Experience is there, but this unit has to continue to improve, especially in the pass-rushing department where the Commodores had just 20 sacks in 2010. Rob Lohr led Vanderbilt with four sacks a year ago and had 35 tackles. T.J. Greenstone is coming off of injury and will line up inside. Tim Fugger was one of the Commodores' most consistent players at end, playing in every game and registering three sacks and four forced fumbles.

12. Kentucky: End Collins Ukwu and tackle Luke McDermott return with the most experience on Kentucky’s line. Ukwu improved not only on the field but in the weight room this spring and is expected to be a more consistent pass-rusher. McDermott is a walk-on currently ahead of Donte Rumph, who has the talent to be one of Kentucky’s top defenders, but has yet to fully buy in to the program. The coaches are also waiting for tackle Mister Cobble to finally break out of his funk and be a regular contributor. The rest of Kentucky’s linemen have some developing to do and are inexperienced.

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