After the debacle of Tennessee’s defense down the stretch of the 2016 season, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has drawn some unflattering comparisons to an infamous former Vol coordinator: Sal Sunseri.
Sunseri was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator in 2012, and his defense was one of the worst in program history. The Vols were torched by just about every SEC team they played, and even the Troy Trojans were able to pile up yards on that defense, breaking the school record for most yards allowed in Vol history when they racked up 718 total yards.
Until this season, however.
Bob Shoop’s 2016 defense now holds that distinct misfortune after giving up 740 yards to Missouri in November of this year. But it wasn’t just one game; the Vols were scorched on the ground in almost every single game for the last half of the season. The Vols gave up a combined 1,625 rushing yards to Texas A&M, Alabama, Kentucky, and Missouri down the stretch. All but Texas A&M ran for over 400 yards in their games against the Vols, and the Aggies were just 47 yards away from that mark themselves.
And that doesn’t even count the 192 yards the Vols allowed to Vanderbilt in the season finale.
But just how does Bob Shoop compare to Sal Sunseri? Well, from a statistical standpoint, the two are disturbingly similar.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2012 and 2016 defenses in key statistical categories:
Scoring Defense: 35.7 points
Rush Defense: 188.8 yards
Pass Defense: 282.5 yards
Total Defense: 471.3 yards
Yards Per Play: 6.13
3rd Down Defense: 38.9%
Red Zone Defense Scoring Percentage: 91.5%
Red Zone TD Percentage: 57.5%
20+ Yard Plays Allowed: 74
Scoring Defense: 29.3 points
Rush Defense: 231.7 yards
Pass Defense: 228.5 yards
Total Defense: 460.2 yards
Yards Per Play: 5.94
3rd Down Defense: 38.4%
Red Zone Defense Scoring Percentage: 85.4%
Red Zone TD Percentage: 60.4%
20+ Yard Plays Allowed: 69
As you can see, the 2012 defense is still worse overall from a statistical standpoint. The 2016 defense got torched on the ground more and allowed teams to score touchdowns slightly more in the red zone, but the 2012 defense was still more inept. The 2016 defense has at least been somewhat disruptive with sacks and turnovers forced; the 2012 Vols couldn’t do that.
Regardless, the 2016 defense still hasn’t been good. Their numbers are being compared to the worst overall defense in Tennessee history, and they only barely compare favorably in most areas. Shoop’s defense still looks similar to Sunseri’s on paper.
But looking at the two teams from merely a numbers perspective doesn’t tell the whole story.
When Sunseri took over, he wanted to implement a new 3-4 defensive scheme with a roster designed to run a 4-3 scheme. The pieces didn’t fit, but Sunseri stubbornly tried to force the players into the system. The Vols didn’t have a ton of injury issues in 2012 outside of safety Brian Randolph, but starters and backups alike failed to produce in Sunseri’s defense.
Sunseri’s brief tenure as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator was his first attempt as a defensive coordinator at the FBS level. Sunseri was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach at Alabama before Derek Dooley hired him to be the defensive coordinator at Tennessee, and he’s been the defensive ends coach at Florida State and is now the linebackers coach for the Oakland Raiders.
Bob Shoop, however, has had experience as a defensive coordinator before coming to Tennessee. And he has a pretty good track record as one.
In his three years as Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator from 2011-13, Shoop’s defense were the 6th, 5th, and 5th overall defense in the league those three seasons. Shoop was able to put together solid defenses at a school where the talent level isn’t equivalent to the rest of the teams in the SEC. Then from 2014-15, Shoop was the defensive coordinator for Penn State where he led the Nittany Lions to the No. 1 and No. 5 overall defenses in those respective years.
Shoop has a history of knowing what he’s doing. He didn’t just come to Tennessee and forget how to coach.
The Vols were decimated by injuries on defense this season, most notably at linebacker and defensive tackle. Throw in the fact that Shoop wasn’t allowed to bring in any of his assistants and didn’t use any of his own terminology, opting to keep the language the same from the John Jancek era, and Shoop wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards this season.
Do any of those factors excuse how bad Tennessee’s defense was in 2016? Absolutely not. The Vols should still have enough quality depth to stop teams from amassing 400 rushing yards a game against them down the stretch. But Shoop’s situation and history are nothing like Sunseri’s.
Both Bob Shoop and Sal Sunseri are responsible for two of the worst statistical defenses in Tennessee history. But that doesn’t mean the two are equivalent in skill and competency.
Time will tell if Bob Shoop will work out at Tennessee. But if Shoop is back with the Vols next season and fails again, then the comparisons to Sunseri are more than fair.