Bob Shoop: Vols must finish better and minimize big plays

Rob Lewis, Associate Editor
Vol Quest

Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop leaned in hard during his Tuesday media session and took some shots for the team in regards to how things went down in Gainesville this past weekend.

Shoop (see video above) was forthright in taking responsibility for the last play of the game, opening Tuesday's media session candidly explaining what happened during Florida's 63-yard touchdown pass to give the Gators an improbable 26-20 win when it looked like the game was headed to overtime.

Like many though, Shoop found plenty of things in the 56 snaps prior to that final play that allowed the game to get to a point where the Gators even had a chance at snatching the win.

Specifically, as was the case in the opener against Georgia Tech, Shoop pointed out that his defense just didn’t get the job done in the fourth quarter the fashion it needed to.

Tennessee has given up just 20 points in the first half through three games this fall. Florida scored 20 on Saturday (though one was a defensive touchdown).

“What we need to do a better job of is finishing,” Shoop said. “Against Georgia Tech, we gave up a touchdown in the fourth quarter and two touchdowns in overtime. This week (vs. Florida) we gave up 13 points in the fourth quarter and really they had another long run that had it not been for an effort from Justin Martin could have been another score.

“The same things are showing up. We’re playing to our style of play but not consistent enough to beat really good teams.

“I take responsibility. It’s my responsibility to finish those things and it is what it is. It’s hard, but you have to move on.”

On the face of it, given that the breakdowns are more prominent late in the game, one might think that fatigue is playing a factor. That seems even more plausible considering that the Vols are fairly thin up front on defense, but Shoop was reluctant to reach for that as an excuse for what he’s now seeing as a consistent problem.

Tennessee is essentially playing with a three-man rotation at defensive end at the moment, and while things are a little better in the middle with the return of Shy Tuttle, the Vols certainly don’t have a ton of bodies their rotating there at the moment.

“It’s hard to say volume of snaps (is the problem). I don’t want to use that as an excuse. The opening game, that could have been the case, but (not) the last two games. Indiana State we played fine. We didn’t have a lot of snaps this week,” Shoop said.

The Vols had a very reasonable 57 snaps on defense this week compared to the 96 they were on the field for in the double-overtime opener against the Yellow Jackets.

BIG PLAYS STILL A PROBLEM

One area where Shoop’s defense is having problems is a familiar one. That’s in surrendering big plays.

It was a massive —and consistent— problem during 2016 and it’s already cropped up as an issue in the first month of this season against both of the quality opponents the Vols have faced.

Georgia Tech had five plays of 20 or more yards in the opener. Florida matched that number on Saturday with five, including a pair of 60+ yard plays.

As Shoop adroitly pointed out, it’s those huge gainers that the Vols have to eliminate.

“It’s big plays again. You take away a 72 yard run and the 63 yard pass and they had 230-240 yards,” Shoop observed. “I’ve said this before. Offensively, you can 55 bad snaps and three good ones and score 21 points. Defensively you can play 55 great snaps and three bad snaps and you stink.

“That’s been our Achilles heel for the year-and-a-half that I’ve been here. We don’t just give up big plays, we give up catastrophic type plays. It’s not a 15-20 yard run, it’s a long play. We’ve got to work hard, and we are working hard, to minimize those things.”

Tennessee has minimized the damage of a couple of those plays thanks to some remarkable hustle plays that caused fumbles at the end of those long runs.

Against Georgia Tech Rashaan Gaulden saved the game with a forced fumble at the end of long run that could have iced the game. On Saturday Justin Martin kept Tennessee’s chances alive when he forced a fumble at the goal line that resulted in a touchback.

Tennessee can’t count on those type of miraculous things to continue and on Saturday, even with Martin’s play, it wasn’t enough.

LABRUZZA TO SAFETY

The season ending surgery that Todd Kelly Jr. underwent last week has put the Vols’ safety depth under a microscope.

On Saturday, freshman Theo Jackson essentially represented the depth at the position, so it wasn’t much of a surprise on Tuesday when Shoop announced that freshman Cheyenne Labruzza was moving from corner to safety.

Shoop added that the picture would be much improved were Evan Berry healthy and available.

“He’s smart. He was already playing on special teams. He was a guy who I thought might eventually transition to safety anyway,” Shoop said of Labruzza. “We’ve got to get Evan Berry back. If we get Evan back it’s not Cheyenne.

“Cheyenne and Theo Jackson can back those guys up. They both practice hard. They do the right things so that was the choice.”

Shoop added that there’s a chance freshman Maleik Gray could also find himself in the mix at the safety spot, but seemed to hint that the staff would prefer to hold off and redshirt him if circumstances allow.

“Right now we’re kind of deciding how we want to play it out with Maleik Gray, whether he’s going to redshirt or play. Because Cheyenne has already been in games he was the best option,” he said.

As for Kelly, even though he was playing behind Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy, Shoop made it abundantly clear that he’ll be missed.

“Todd Kelly is a great kid and to me he embodies all that’s great about college football. He comes from a good family, he’s a good student, very involved in community service. It’s very sad,” Shoop shared.

“He wasn’t playing as much, but to say that he wasn’t playing at all was an inaccurate statement, some people wrote that. He played the most snaps against Indiana State of any safety and almost half the game against Georgia Tech.

"I do think that his knee injury from back whenever has prevented him from playing up to his full capabilities and I think that became discouraging to him and the pain got to the point where he had to have something done.”

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