Bob Shoop has been busy.
In the weeks since the 25-year coaching veteran was named Penn State’s defensive coordinator, Shoop has been glued to the video screen in his office. He’s watched snap after snap of the most recent incarnation of Penn State’s defense. He’s scrawled note after note and met with player after player.
Listen to Shoop talk Xs and Os and it doesn’t take long to realize the Oakmont native is a forward thinker consumed by football schematics.
“I personally watched every single game last year multiple times,” Shoop said of Penn State’s 2013 campaign.
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During film sessions, his coaching gears started spinning in Shoop’s mind. By early February he was conjuring possible defensive permutations with returning personnel he saw on his screen. And with the Nittany Lions nearing the end of spring practice, Shoop has gotten to work with them – and a host of newcomers – hands-on.
He sees plenty of potential. His boss, head coach James Franklin, has seen early progress.
“They align and assign and then run to the ball. We’ve done a good job of that,” Franklin said following Penn State’s 11th practice. “It’s obviously a little bit more complicated than that. But the defense is usually a little bit further ahead.”
Looking back to look ahead
Like Shoop’s position — he’s the team’s fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons — the Nittany Lion defense was inconsistent as a whole last season.
Penn State lost a handful of pieces from a defense that ranked 29th among FBS teams in 2012 and dropped to 48th last season. Injuries and a lack of depth at key positions — notably linebacker and in the defensive backfield — kept Penn State from fielding a consistent unit.
And opposing offenses took advantage.
They gouged Penn State at times with chunk plays, converting third-and-longs with plays of 10 or more yards 42 times. In addition, Penn State’s defense was routinely susceptible to big, or ‘X’ plays, as former defensive coordinator John Butler called them. The Nittany Lions gave up plays of 20 or more yards 56 times last season.
Meanwhile, Penn State ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in total defense, pass defense and scoring defense and was a middle-of-the-pack team (sixth) when it came to stopping the run. The Nittany Lions were also in the lower half of the Big Ten in turnover margin having forced just 20 turnovers.
If Penn State is going to up its defensive play in 2014, Shoop knows it must come through in three areas where the 2013 unit could not — stopping the run with ferocity, staunching big gains at inopportune times and creating turnovers.
Shoop’s willing to tweak and mold the pieces he has to make it happen.
“We try to tailor our schemes to what our players are capable of doing rather than try to fit them into a scheme,” Shoop said. “If that means in today’s games a team is two backs and one tight end or one back and two tight ends, grind it out football, maybe we’ll be a more traditional, four down linemen, three linebackers, four DBs.”
Oftentimes that’s not the case, however.
Spread ‘em out, speed ‘em up
Last season, Shoop’s third at Vanderbilt, got off to a breakneck pace for the Commodores.
Shoop’s defense faced some form of a no-huddle, spread offense nearly every week. In the first half of the season, the Commodores faced three teams — Mississippi, Missouri and Georgia — that finished in the top half of average number of offensive snaps at season’s end. Meanwhile, Texas A&M and Tennessee also attacked by spreading out their opponents.
The year before, Vanderbilt’s defense was tasked with slowing the up-tempo offenses of Tennessee, Missouri and Mississippi — offenses that used just over 20 seconds on average between snaps according to Mr.SEC.com.
“Everybody’s a little bit of a different style of spread,” Shoop said. “Texas A&M was spread to throw while Ole Miss was spread to run where Auburn was spread to run. Each of them has a little bit of their own personality.”
It didn’t take a tour through the SEC ranks for Shoop to catch on to the developing tendencies of offenses to spread the field.
While running William & Mary’s defense from 2007 to 2010, Shoop schemed against the remnants of the spread Chip Kelly left behind at New Hampshire. He game planned for the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens helmed by Joe Flacco and tried to slow down Villanova’s vaunted, multi-wideout sets.
In the short time he’s been at Penn State, he’s seen plenty of similar spread and up-tempo tendencies from Big Ten teams.
Indiana’s fast-paced attack stood out to him during his film sessions in January and February. The Hoosiers ran 80 plays in their 44-24 win and only used 18 seconds between plays on average. The Hoosiers were so quick at times that they needed just 13 or 14 seconds to get back to the line and snap the ball, a point Penn State linebacker Mike Hull brought to Shoop’s attention during a meeting in the winter.
“It’s not easy (to defend). And the numbers back that up,” Shoop said.
There are plenty of strategies and reasons for employing the spread offense. Shoop has coached against teams like the Hoosiers who are “trying to purely beat you with tempo and speed if they’re going at that rapid of a pace.”
He’s also seen teams quicken the pace just to draw a defense out of position or force defenders to give away their look — like Central Florida did last season when it racked up 10 plays of 20 yards or more against Penn State in Week 2.
“The thing that makes the spread so vicious now, within the framework of an individual play can be four or five options,” Shoop said. “If you don’t have enough players in the box to stop the run, they’re just going to run the ball. And then if you put the extra guy in the box then they’ll run the read where the quarterback has the option to give the ball or keep the ball. And then when he keeps the ball, off of that it used to be an option play out of the wishbone or something like that. Now the receivers are actually running down the field to put the linebacker in conflict.”
Mix and match
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a safety for the entirety of his collegiate career at Penn State prior to last season’s opener, trotted from the sideline and out to the left of Hull as Penn State’s weakside linebacker.
Two days before, Karl Butler made his second start for the Commodores in a similar role after switching from safety to linebacker in 2012.
While Obeng-Agyapong and Butler were undersized converts at 205 and 216 pounds respectively, they were able to provide speed from the middle of the defense. It’s a tactic Shoop plans on using at Penn State as more and more teams field wide receiver heavy packages every Saturday.
Hull, who plays a strong coverage game, filled a similar role in 2012 when Penn State was short on experience in the defensive backfield. Then, Hull entered in place of Glenn Carson while Adrian Amos shifted back to safety.
“It’s such a space game nowadays,” Hull said. “Over the last couple of years I think that’s kind of what college football and all football is evolving into.”
While Hull is playing in the middle this spring and Obeng-Agyapong graduated, Shoop has auditioned a few different players at this hybrid position. Sophomore Brandon Bell and Amos have seen time at the “field linebacker” spot.
“You have to be really good at playing perimeter run and bubble screens and things like that which is what we got a lot of last year,” Hull said.
Shoop envisions being able to field a nickel and dime package — with five and six defensive backs — but is also committed to getting the most out of multiple players at multiple spots. Ideally, the field linebacker will be responsible for the wide side of the gridiron and provide under, bump-and-run coverages and re-route receivers.
He’s also weighed the benefit of possibly experimenting with a 3-4 front where Shoop believes defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have the speed necessary to play as outside linebackers.
“The thing that you maybe take to the next level is maybe there are some things we can do up front to create opportunities for those guys to get mismatches,” Shoop said. “Maybe get a back in protection on them instead of a lineman.”
For now, it’s an intriguing idea to him. Shoop knows he still has plenty of time to figure out where all of his pieces fit.
He plans on staying busy.
“At the end of the spring we’ll evaluate and rate our top 22 players,” Shoop said. “In a perfect world, the first 11 would be your first 11. Your next 11 would be your next 11. But sometimes you have three or four safeties that are in the Top 11 or maybe a third defensive end and you try to put your best players on the field.”