South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier might not know the name of Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator, but the Head Ball Coach has seen enough of the Commodores on tape to know that they’re well-coached.
“I don’t know the guy that well. I think he came from William & Mary, but he’s doing a super job,” Spurrier said.
That guy is Bob Shoop, and he did indeed come from William & Mary.
He also has a defense that’s coming from just about everywhere. At least, it seems that way.
“We want teams to think we’re playing with 13 or 14 guys on defense,” said Vanderbilt junior cornerback Trey Wilson, who has three of the Commodores’ FBS-leading 10 interceptions this season. “You never know where we might come from. We might drop in from the sky.”
One of the reasons Vanderbilt first-year coach James Franklin went and got Shoop from William & Mary was how creative Shoop had been, not to mention how successful he’d been.
Shoop is one of the few guys on Franklin’s staff that he didn’t know that well. But Franklin knew the caliber of ball-hawking defenses Shoop had put on the field in his four seasons at William & Mary when he transformed the Tribe into one of the top-rated defensive clubs in the FCS.
“He had a year where he was a defensive coordinator where they finished No. 1 in almost every single defensive category,” Franklin said. “I don’t care what league you’re in. That’s hard to do.”
Granted, the Commodores have only played one SEC game under Shoop, but the results have been the same as they were during his time at William & Mary.
They lead the SEC with 12 forced turnovers and eight sacks and rank 10th nationally in total defense, allowing 250 yards per game.
In three games, the Commodores have scored as many touchdowns on defense (three) as they’ve given up on defense.
Shoop, a former head coach at Columbia, is the epitome of the analytical type. He earned his economics degree at Yale and loves crunching numbers.
But he said the secret to Vanderbilt’s success on defense thus far doesn’t boil down to scheme. Rather, it’s how hard the Commodores have played, how smart they’ve played and how opportunistic they’ve been.
“I give credit to the players,” Shoop said. “The players have made the plays when the opportunities have presented themselves. When the ball’s in the air, we’ve attacked it really well. We’ve gone up for it and challenged for it.”
In the very first meeting Shoop had with his players this season, he showed them a 20-play highlight tape of defenses returning interceptions for touchdowns. There were clips on there from his William & Mary days. There were also clips on there from past Super Bowls.
“Turnovers are the great equalizer,” Shoop said. “They can turn a mediocre defense into a good one, a good one into a great one and a great one into a championship one. That’s something we’ve preached and emphasized.”
The players love playing in his system, too.
“We come from all over the place,” said sophomore linebacker Chase Garnham, who's tied for third on the team in total tackles with 13. “I’m sure it’s really tough on the offense, all the different angles we come from. It’s very aggressive, unique and creative. I like it a lot.”
Wilson, part of a secondary that rates right up there with any in the SEC, said Shoop is continually pounding home the importance of doing the little things right.
“That’s what separates the championship defenses,” Wilson said.
As impressive as the Commodores have been through three games, Shoop is well aware that the stakes are about to go up.
Shoop joked that it hit him last Thursday night in watching LSU’s 19-6 victory over Mississippi State on television that he no longer gets to just watch the SEC’s collection of premier athletes from afar.
“I’d always watched the SEC on the Thursday night games as a casual observer, but not actually thinking, ‘Holy crap, I’m playing against these guys,’ ” Shoop quipped. “I watched that game and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m right in the thick of this.’
“I watched those guys play and said, ‘This ain’t William & Mary anymore.’ ”
No, it’s not, but it’s also not the same old Vanderbilt.
The Commodores are talented and active in their defensive front, have one of the most productive inside linebackers in the league in Chris Marve and a secondary that allows Shoops to bring an assortment of pressure. They're also experienced on defense.
The Commodores have a saying on defense before every game.
“We always say three-and-out first series and first-quarter shutout,” Shoop said. “Through three games, that’s where we are. We’re on schedule. We’re not ahead, not behind, but we’re right on schedule.
“Now, we get the meat of the schedule, and we’ve got to get going. All we’ve done is get that first-quarter shutout, and we have to continue to go from there.”