- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
"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.