The Butch Jones tenure at Tennessee had no lack of head-scratching moments.
Why didn’t Tennessee try a two-point conversion while up two touchdowns on Florida in 2015?
Why was the 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara sitting on the bench for most of his career at Tennessee?
Why did Tennessee allow Quinten Dormady to throw the ball fours time on the 1-yard line against Florida in 2017?
But, for me, one of the biggest (and least talked about) head scratchers of the Jones era was defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
After Tennessee’s small dose of success during the 2015 season the Vols were primed for a breakout season in 2016, though something had to change in order to take an 8-4 team to the next level. Butch Jones thought that the change needed to be made on defense, so Tennessee announced they would be “mutually parting ways” with John Jancek and proceeded to hire Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
When Tennessee announced the hiring of Bob Shoop in January of 2016 you could feel the excitement in the air. Shoop was expected to come in and take a respectable defense into a high quality, SEC-caliber defense.
The hiring of Shoop was a sense of validation for the Tennessee fanbase. To Tennessee fans tired of reading articles and listening to the national media talk about how Tennessee is no longer a blue blood program and how they should just quietly accept mediocrity year in and year out, hiring away a top assistant from a blue blood program like Penn State was a big deal. The hiring was also a big deal to Tennessee fans because it now felt that Tennessee was one step closer to at least looking like the the upper brass of the SEC in terms of staff. Butch Jones’ staff early in his tenure stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the SEC. There weren’t any big names like a Jeremy Pruitt or a Kirby Smart or a John Chavis; there also weren’t any big accolades to boast about. The most impressive achievement with Jones’ early personnel was probably his 2011 Big East Coach of the Year award, an award for a conference that doesn’t even exist anymore.
The hype going into the 2016 season was palpable. It was finally time for Butch Jones to put his money where his mouth is and prove he can take Tennessee to the promised land of the SEC Championship Game. A lot of hype in the offseason centered around the defense. It would most likely be the final year for All-American defensive end Derek Barnett and for seniors Malik Foreman, Corey Vereen, and LaTroy Lewis. If Tennessee was going to win big, it was going to be in 2016.
For a man that took a Vanderbilt defense ranked 94th in the nation in 2010 and turned them into a top 20 defense in just a year, and then took a beaten, sanctioned Penn State defense ranked 49th in the nation and turned them into the second ranked defense in the nation, you think Shoop would just absolutely kill it his first year as defensive coordinator with talent such as Derek Barnett, Kyle Phillips, Darrin Kirkland Jr., and Rashaan Gaulden.
*Cue the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme song.*
Tennessee started off the 2016 season pretty well on defense, holding a hungry and ambitious Appalachian State team to 13 points and a young and talented Virginia Tech offense to 24 points and made them cough up five turnovers. But during that game against Virginia Tech, linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and defensive end LaTroy Lewis both got injured in what marked the beginning for an awful trend of injuries that would plague the Vols defense for the entire season.
After that game Tennessee’s defense slowly whittled away game by game for the rest of the season. This is backed up by the stats of the 2016 season. In the four games played in September, Tennessee gave up 353 yards a game (that would have been good for 25th in total defense); in the four games played in October, Tennessee gave up 475 yards a game (that would have been good for 118th in total defense); and in the four games played in November, Tennessee was giving up 551 yards a game (that would have been good 127th in the nation, the second worst defense in all of FBS). Injuries were so brutal to Tennessee’s defense in 2016, they essentially went from a top 25 defense to the second worst defense in the country in a matter of two months.
Though Tennessee had a very rough time on the defensive side of the ball in 2016, many fans gave Bob Shoop a pass. It was his first year as defensive coordinator, he had less than a year to install his system, and Tennessee was plagued with injuries.
Even though the hype had died down a little, Tennessee fans were still very excited going into the 2017 season to see what Bob Shoop could do with a healthy defense and with top rated talents such as Shy Tuttle, Jonathan Kongbo, and Kyle Phillips.
*Cue the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme song — again.”
Tennessee’s opener game against Georgia Tech was atrocious to say the least. The Vols gave up 655 yards that night including 535 yards on the ground.
The Vols then travel down to Florida and give up 380 yards to the 110th ranked offense in the country. What is even more surprising is how Tennessee lined up at the last seconds of the — you know what, I’m just not going to rehash that.
From here on out, I think everyone knows what happened after the Florida game.
The Vols defense finished the season ranked 82nd in the country in total defense and ranked 125th in the country in rushing defense, giving up 251 rushing yards a game and 5.43 yards a rushing attempt. Tennessee still finished poorly defensively despite having an average amount of injuries.
But, hey, at least we had the third best passing offense in the country, right?
So, what went wrong? Why did the man that transformed an awful Vanderbilt and Penn State defense in elite defenses in just one year fail at Tennessee? Why did the defense regress from the 36th ranked defense in 2015 under John Jancek into the 95th ranked defense in 2016 under Bob Shoop? Why did multiple five and four star players look underdeveloped and undersized? Why did the defense never reach its full potential in the two years Bob Shoop was the defensive coordinator? Why couldn’t the defense ever piece together four good quarters of play?
We can all sit down and speculate on whether Shy Tuttle and Jonathan Kongbo were huge busts or if Butch Jones tampered with the defense. We can speculate on whether Butch Jones intentionally targeted recruits that were previously injured as an easy way to bolster recruiting rankings.
The thing is, like most questions fans have after the five years of Butch Jones at Tennessee, we may never know the full answer, and even if we get the answer it might be 2, 3, 5, or maybe even 10 years.
It will be very interesting to see how Bob Shoop does at Mississippi State and how Kevin Sherrer does at Tennessee for the next few years.
Does Bob Shoop transform Mississippi State’s defense into an elite defense like he did at Vanderbilt and Penn State?
What does Tennessee’s defense look like with Kevin Sherrer and Jeremy Pruitt leading them? Was it really a talent and conditioning problem, or was it a coaching problem?
Myself and many others will be very interested in seeing how this plays out at both schools in hopes of getting some sort of answer.