A cheery and chipper Bob Shoop spoke (and joked) via teleconference on Thursday morning, and immediately, one thing was clear: There is no bigger fan of Penn State’s defensive players than their defensive coordinator.
Shoop has coached the team’s most consistent unit for two years, and before the Nittany Lions traveled to Columbus two weeks ago, the defense had been No. 10 in the nation in stopping the run. Since then, the unit has allowed almost 900 yards of offense — but Shoop didn’t seem ultimately concerned.
Instead, the defensive coordinator was impressed with how some members of his defense have stepped up to fill important roles, and how they’ve grown in the process — and revealed he takes a very mathematical approach when evaluating his squad from week to week.
Question: In what areas specifically has the defense met or exceeded your expectations, and in what areas does it need to improve?
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Answer: “Each week’s a little bit of a different challenge for us. First of all, I say this all the time, but for me, one of the things that’s really important for me is the difference between playing ‘well’ and playing ‘winning football.’ For the most part, this unit has done a good job playing winning football. There’s areas, certainly, where we need to improve upon, especially in the last couple of weeks, but I’m really pleased with the group overall. Especially the defensive line has been exceptionally disruptive, you know, I mean creating tackles for loss and sacks has been really good. We always talk about stopping the run, and elevating big plays and taking the ball away, and up until the last couple of weeks we’ve done a really good job…We’ve met our tackling grade five out of eight weeks; just the last couple of weeks we’ve done a poor job with regard to tackling, and that’s something I know (head coach James Franklin) has addressed a couple of times. I promise you that we’re working to continue to be the type of defense that everybody wants to be.”
Q: How do you go about improving tackling in the middle of the season, especially when practice is modified?
A: “I want to emphasize, five of eight games this year, we’ve achieved our tackling grade...Which is 11 or less missed tackles. We allow one per position. The last two weeks, certainly, we haven’t tackled like any of us would want to. It’s about emphasizing the fundamentals, not taking anything for granted; certainly you can’t do too much live in the course of practice but I think each of us defensive coaches and individuals (do) some form-and-fit tackling, you know, team drills against the scout team emphasizing a good finishing position … And sometimes, I think, at this point in the season it’s difficult to continue to emphasize those things because legs are worn down, people are weary. It’s a grind.”
Q: Can you talk about Jason Cabinda’s transition to middle linebacker, and how he’s doing? And also about Troy Reeder?
A: “I’m so glad you asked. You know, in the offseason, the Mike and the Will positions in our scheme aren’t really a whole lot different, they’re both box-style ‘backers. And when Nyeem Wartman-White went down at Temple, on the bus ride back from Temple, Jason said ‘Put me in there. I got this.’ And that’s kind of his personality. And to me, he brings some things to the table that I’ve seen very, very few guys have. As good a player as Mike Hull was, Jason has some of the leadership qualities at that position, from the personality to the vocalness, all of those things, the ‘commanding his troops’-type mentality that’s very rare in college football...And at that point, when we transitioned Jason inside, we had to make a move at Will, and Troy’s a guy who had a really good spring, shortened because of injury, and was battling some of that through camp. But when his opportunity came about, he’s really risen to the challenge and played at a pretty high level through his first seven career starts. And let’s keep in mind here, this wasn’t the plan coming into the season. We moved Jason into a position he’s never played at this level, we elevated Troy, who we expected to be a backup this year, and those guys have played at a pretty high level.”
Q: You knew coming into the season that depth was going to be a concern, it’s been tested already. Unit-wide, how do you feel things are going with player development?
A: “Up front, the defensive line is the deepest position on the team, and the success they’ve played with this season has demonstrated that. Told you before the season that a guy like Carl Nassib could emerge, and he sure has. And to me, he deserves every ounce of recognition he’s getting right now … but Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are doing the same thing. Garrett Sickels. Watch a guy like Torrance Brown emerge and make plays during the game. Tarow Barney, Parker Cothran. When you get to the second level, Jason and Troy have done a great job. But Brandon Bell certainly hasn’t been 100 percent all year, so guys like Von Walker, Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen have stepped up and emerged … To watch those guys develop has been fun. And then in the back end too, with Jordan Lucas and (Marcus) Allen having missed time, Troy Apke and Malik Golden have stepped up and played very well...What’s exciting to me is that a lot of that depth, especially at the second and third level, are young guys.”
Q: You love to break stuff down, look at tendencies ... how much do you enjoy that aspect of college football, where from one week to the next, you might be facing a completely different type of attack?
A: “I do enjoy that part of it, and that is the challenge of being a defensive coordinator in college football in 2015, that, let’s face it, we went from the triple option of West Point, to the spread offense of Indiana with a running quarterback, to Ohio State to Maryland. Very distinct offenses right there ... I’ve said this for the past few years, go on NCAA.org and look at the statistics. Look how many teams now average 400 yards a game or more...and look how many teams are holding offenses to 300 yards or less, anymore. The game has changed and continues to evolve, and we as coaches have to evolve with it. I think you can make the case that being a defensive coordinator in college football is one of the most challenging jobs in all of sports today because of that. And that is part of the fun of it.”
Q: A couple of your players earlier this week said you predicted five takeaways that Rutgers game last year, and you predicted five takeaways against Maryland and you got that. How often do you make these types of predictions? Is there any psychology to that?
A: “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why don’t I make more?’ To me, the analytics of it are a little different now. To look at yards per game, to look at different things like that, maybe are a little outdated. Our goal is 1.67 points per possession. And in the average game, each team has 12 possessions, so that’s 20 points a game. In this game, Maryland had 17 possessions and 30 points. So you look at that, and you think ‘Wow, they gave up a lot of points,’ but they had 17 possessions, and eight of them were three-and-outs, including the last five. So we looked at this game and we said ‘The three things that we need to do to win this game are play well in the red zone ... we talked about creating takeaways, and I told them that I thought, to win the game, that we were going to have to have five takeaways. And it motivated them a little bit. Each player got a pack of Icebreakers (candy) and we said, ‘Once we break the ice, these are going to come through and we’ll need five takeaways to win the game.’ And then the last piece was that we said we were going to have to play great on third down. And we were.”