SEC: Bob Shoop

Season report card: Vanderbilt

February, 11, 2014
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Vanderbilt is the last of the 14 SEC teams to get its report card for the 2013 season, and once again, the Commodores received some high marks.

OFFENSE: C+

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Jordan Matthews was Vandy's offensive MVP after recording 112 catches for 1,477 yards and seven TDs in 2013.
For the second straight season, the Commodores averaged 30 or more points per game (30.1), although their running game dropped off to last in the league. Against SEC competition, Vanderbilt averaged just 115.4 yards per game on the ground. Give the Commodores credit, though, for taking a great player and riding him. Senior receiver Jordan Matthews made one key play after another, and Vanderbilt wasn't shy about feeding him the ball. Matthews concluded a record-breaking career by leading the SEC with 112 catches and 1,477 receiving yards. He was easily the most valuable player on offense, but senior left tackle Wesley Johnson at least deserves to be in the conversation. Senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels also showed a lot of courage by playing on a torn ACL in the last few regular-season games, and redshirt freshman Patton Robinette filled in capably in the couple games Carta-Samuels missed and in the bowl game after Carta-Samuels underwent surgery.

DEFENSE: B

There were some rough spots early, but Vanderbilt finished in the Top 25 nationally in total defense for the third straight season. The only other four SEC schools to do that were Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina. The Commodores gave up 35 or more points in all four of their SEC losses, including 50-plus to both Missouri and Texas A&M, but settled down and played their best football on defense down the stretch. The secondary was once again outstanding. Safety Kenny Ladler led the team with 91 tackles and also had five interceptions and five forced fumbles. Cornerback Andre Hal was one of the best cover guys in the league and led the SEC with 18 passes defended. Even though the Commodores weren't dominant on defense, they were opportunistic. Their 30 forced turnovers tied for second in the league, and they also finished in the top five in third-down defense. All in all, another solid job by Bob Shoop and his staff.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

The Commodores' return units weren't especially prolific, ranking 11th in punt return average and 13th in kickoff returns in the SEC. On the bright side, the Commodores were fifth in the league in net punting (39.1 yards), and senior placekicker Carey Spear was his usual dependable self. He made 15 of 19 field-goal attempts and was never shy about sticking his head in there on kickoff coverage, either. Adam Butler had two blocked kicks.

OVERALL: B+

If you just looked at the Commodores' numbers this season, they weren't overly impressive. But it's a team that found ways to win, which is a credit to James Franklin and his staff, not to mention the leadership on the team. It's true that Vanderbilt didn't beat up on a lot of teams that finished the season with winning records. But to win nine games for the second consecutive year -- something that had never previously been done at Vanderbilt -- speaks for itself. The Commodores won at Florida, beat Georgia and also went to Knoxville and won, their second straight win over the Vols. Losing Franklin to Penn State was a downer, for sure. He took the Commodores to unprecedented heights and brought a much-needed edge to the program. Given his success, it was inevitable that he was going to bolt for a bigger job, and he did when the Nittany Lions came calling. Nonetheless, he engineered the kind of run that we might not see for a long time again at Vanderbilt, which had enjoyed just one winning season in the 28 years prior to Franklin arriving on campus.

In defense of SEC defenses

November, 21, 2013
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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
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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.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you're looking for one of the country's more underrated coaches and units, look no further than Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his defense.

The Commodores ranked 19th nationally in total defense (333.9 yards per game) and fifth in the SEC last year, but not many people are looking to throw compliments up Nashville way. Maybe they should because Shoop, who enters his third season as Vandy's defensive coordinator with eight senior starters, has steadily made his defense better and better.

The talent has mostly remained the same, but Shoop's meticulous commitment to detail and unity has influenced improvement.

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMIVanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is quietly building another sturdy unit in Nashville.
"That's what our players have embraced: consistency," Shoop said.

That consistency helped the Commodores also rank inside the top five of the SEC in scoring defense (18.7 points per game) and passing defense (191.8 yards per game).

Where Shoop's defenses have really impressed is in the secondary. Teams have averaged less than 200 yards a game against the Commdores for the last two seasons and there's a good chance that trend will continue.

Vandy's secondary is headlined by senior cornerback Andre Hal and senior safety Kenny Ladler, who are two of the best players in the SEC at their respective positions. Hal broke up 14 passes and grabbed two interceptions last year, while Ladler made plays all over the field and led the team with 90 tackles.

Shoop considers Hal a five-tool player with his ability to press in man coverage, play off man, play Cover 2, blitz and support the run. Shoop said Hal doesn't do anything "incredibly excellent," but "he does all the things you ask out of a corner very, very well."

"Andre's a special player.," Shoop said. "He's one of the most under-the-radar players in all of college football. Sometimes he does things that maybe the average fan or person wouldn't see because the ball doesn't get thrown his way."

Shoop also said that watching Ladler develop has been one of the most rewarding parts of his job. When he first arrived, he saw talent and confidence, but Ladler had to expand. He had to find his range, cover tight ends and learn how to make plays off the edge. Now, all of that is second nature.

"Arguably in the spring and [fall] camp, he's been maybe our most consistent player on defense," Shoop said.

Helping those guys out will be safety Javon Marshall, who tied Ladler with 60 solo tackles and should help Vandy have the SEC's best safety duo, and senior Steven Clarke, who played nickel corner last year, but has made tremendous strides opposite Hal.

What really has the staff excited is the depth that emerged along the defensive line and at linebacker this spring. Play up front might even have these guys giddy. There's quite the foundation with ends Walker May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike, but Shoop is really excited about tackles Adam Butler, who could start as a redshirt freshman, Jared Morse, who Shoop thinks eventually could be a 10-year NFL pro, and Vince Taylor, who runs a legitimate 4.9 in the 40-yard dash while carrying 305 pounds.

"We've got eight guys who I think would play for most people in the conference, which I don't think we had that in the past," coach James Franklin said.

"Even just looking at them they look different. You have to be careful because a lot of guys look the part but don't play the part. We got a lot of guys who look like SEC players and are playing like SEC players."

Speaking of different looks, in order to help the defense more, Vandy's offense threw even more at it during fall camp. To combat the uptempo offenses the Dores will see -- starting with Ole Miss in Week 1 -- Vandy's offense gave the defense two different huddles to work with and the most challenging formations to face in rapid fire drills.

That constant movement challenged the defense's composure, condition and depth, which Shoop liked.

"That's what we're aiming for," Shoop said. "We want to see who's going to be mentally tough, who's going to be physically well-conditioned, who's going to communicate and get going. I'm kind of pushing the envelope, trying to see what we can align and execute in those situations.

"Part of the things those uptempo teams aim to do is vanilla you up. We're a fairly high-pressure team so we try to get out of that and get aligned and execute the defense."

Execution hasn't been an issues thus far, and with Shoop leading the way, this unit should continue to frustrate opponents.

The SEC's best 25 players: No. 23

July, 25, 2013
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Go back and look at how many quality defensive backs Vanderbilt has produced over the last few years. This next guy in our countdown is in that same class.

No. 23: Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt, Sr.

2012 summary: Hal had 16 passes defended, which was second only to Alabama's Dee Milliner last season. Hal was also second in the league with 14 pass breakups and intercepted two passes. He finished with 48 total tackles, including 36 solo stops, and was a second-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press.

Most recent ranking: Not ranked in the 2012 postseason countdown.

Making the case for Hal: There was a time when Hal might have been a bit of an unknown in the SEC, to the point where some people incorrectly referred to him as "Hall," but those days are long gone. Not only is he one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC, but he's also one of the most complete players in the SEC. The 6-foot, 186-pound Hal can lock down on receivers, hold his own in run support and has also proven to be a dangerous return man during his career. He had a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Georgia as a sophomore. Hal had played some in the Vanderbilt secondary since his freshman season, but last season was his first as a full-time starter. He blossomed and is on track to become the fourth Vanderbilt cornerback taken in the NFL draft in the last six years, joining Casey Hayward, Myron Lewis and D.J. Moore. Hal enters the 2013 season on the Thorpe Award watch list and will again be a staple in Bob Shoop's Vanderbilt defense, which has ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense each of the past two seasons.

The rundown
  • No. 24: Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia, So.
  • No. 25: Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.
Looking at the NFL draft, it's easy to see how some of the SEC teams had so much success in 2012.

Alabama and LSU led the way for the conference with nine draft picks each and both registered double-digit wins last season. Alabama won 13 games and a national championship last year, while LSU went 10-3.

Georgia, which went 12-2 last year, and 11-2 Florida both had eight draft picks, while 11-2 South Carolina had seven.

But take a gander at Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 9-4 in James Franklin's second year, but did it with just two future NFL draft picks -- running back Zac Stacy (first Vandy running back drafted since 1980) and offensive lineman Ryan Seymour. Vandy had eight draft-eligible players this year.

It's clear Franklin and his staff were able to do a lot -- including making it to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history -- with less than the other big boys around the league.

Three SEC teams with less wins in 2012 had more draft picks than Vandy this year:
  • Arkansas (4-8) -- 4
  • Mississippi State (8-5) -- 3
  • Tennessee (5-7) -- 4

Granted, the Commodores return two top-flight wide receivers in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, and have some solid defensive players coming back in 2013, but they lost some key starters from last season, including quarterback Jordan Rodgers, Stacy and Seymour on offense. They also lost their top corner in Trey Wilson, a solid defensive tackle in Rob Lohr and hard-nosed linebacker Archibald Barnes.

Vandy will likely have more draft picks next year, but you have to commend the coaching job Franklin and his crew have done in their two years. Only two Commodores were drafted in the 2012 draft, too, and this program hasn't had near the success it's having now in a very, very long time.

Players have completely bought into Franklin's philosophy and the coaches are doing a very good job developing players. The offensive line was one of the most improved units in the SEC in 2012, thanks to line coach Herb Hand's teachings, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has totally turned this defense around. Vandy is one of five SEC schools to finish in the top 20 nationally each of the past two seasons in total defense.

The Commodores have also showcased a pretty explosive offense during the past two seasons and won five conference games in 2012 for the first time since 1935.

It's been a pretty impressive two-year run for Franklin and his Commodores, and they've done it without the same amount of top-grade talent as the bigger guys.
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
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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.

SEC's 'Dandy Dozen' of assistant coaches

December, 12, 2012
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The head coaches are the ones who make the big money in the SEC.

But without a quality staff, a head coach isn’t going to survive very long in this league.

So as we look back on the 2012 regular season, let’s pay tribute to 12 assistant coaches who separated themselves from the rest. Each of these guys made a huge difference in their development of players and units.

We’ll call it our “Dandy Dozen” of SEC assistant coaches, and they’re listed in alphabetical order:

Mike Bobo, Georgia, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: A finalist for the Broyles Award, Bobo has the Bulldogs ranked in the top four in the SEC in both rushing and passing offense. They scored 28 or more points in 11 of their 13 games, and did it with an offensive line that was both young and unproven when the season began.

Burton Burns, Alabama, associate head coach/running backs: Despite injuries to Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, Alabama didn’t miss a beat in its running game. In fact, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon became the first two players in school history to each rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

John Chavis, LSU, defensive coordinator/linebackers: Like clockwork, Chavis just keeps on churning out rock-solid defenses at LSU. The Tigers are No. 8 nationally in total defense and No. 11 in scoring defense, and that’s despite losing their top playmaker on defense (Tyrann Mathieu) in the preseason.

D.J. Durkin, Florida, special teams coordinator/linebackers: When you play as many close games as the Gators did this season, you better be good on special teams. They weren’t just good. They were excellent in all facets, which is a credit to Durkin and the job he did in coordinating the entire kicking game.

Herb Hand, Vanderbilt, offensive line: For the second year in a row, Zac Stacy rushed for 1,000 yards, and for the second year in a row, the Commodores more than held their own up front offensively. One of the best decisions James Franklin made when he took the job was holding onto Hand from the previous staff.

Kliff Kingsbury, Texas A&M, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: Just his work with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel alone was enough to get Kingsbury some serious props. But Texas A&M’s offense also put up crazy numbers in its first season in the SEC. Kingsbury, a finalist for the Broyles Award, has suddenly become a hot commodity in the head coaching ranks.

Brad Lawing, South Carolina, defensive line: One of the more underrated coaches in the SEC, Lawing has been doing it for a long time at a very high level. His defensive lines at South Carolina have been excellent the past few years and are one of the big reasons the Gamecocks have made their move into the SEC’s upper tier.

Matt Luke, Ole Miss, co-offensive coordinator/offensive line: Just about everybody agreed in the preseason that the offensive line was Ole Miss’ weakest link, but Luke was able to get everything and then some out of that group after a lackluster showing by the Rebels in the trenches in 2011. What’s more, Ole Miss was one of only three teams in the league (Texas A&M and Georgia) to average more than 250 yards passing and 165 yards rushing this season.

Sam Pittman, Tennessee, offensive line: Few units in the league improved as much from 2011 to 2012 as Tennessee’s offensive line. The Vols gave up just eight sacks in 12 games, which was tied for fourth nationally, and padded their rushing average by more than 70 yards per game. Pittman’s approach was exactly what the Vols needed up front, and they blossomed into one of the top offensive lines in the SEC.

Dan Quinn, Florida, defensive coordinator/defensive line: The Gators won 11 games in the regular season, and they held the opposition to 17 or fewer points nine times. Quinn, a Broyles Award finalist, put a defense on the field during his first season at Florida that was very good. But the one this season played at a championship level. The Gators head to the Allstate Sugar Bowl ranked No. 3 nationally in scoring defense and No. 5 in total defense.

Bob Shoop, Vanderbilt, defensive coordinator/safeties: For the second straight season, the Commodores rank among the top 20 teams nationally in total defense. They’re also No. 15 in scoring defense. They’re not real big up front and lost three key players from last season (Chris Marve, Casey Hayward and Tim Fugger), but Shoop keeps finding ways to stop people.

Kirby Smart, Alabama, defensive coordinator/linebackers: Alabama fans were holding their breath when it looked like Smart might be going to Auburn as head coach. The Crimson Tide had six players drafted off of their 2011 national championship defense, but here they are again going back to the national title game and ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense.

Next step the hardest for Vanderbilt

August, 31, 2012
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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
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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.”

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