Five days after parting ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek, Tennessee completed Plan A, announcing an agreement in principle with Penn State DC Bob Shoop. It was exactly the opposite of last year's hire of Mike DeBord. DeBord wasn't an exciting name. DeBord was nearly two decades removed from his most successful years as an offensive coordinator. But DeBord had worked with Butch Jones before. The DeBord hire was about familiarity. The DeBord hire was about continuity.
The Shoop hire? Jones ditched the defensive coordinator who had worked with him for the last six years. He ditched the safe, familiar coworker who had steadily improved the defenses at both Cincinnati and Tennessee, but who had never turned out a dominant unit. He hired somebody outside his circle but whose resume spoke for itself. Bob Shoop has coached five years at the FBS level. His defenses? #14 nationally in yards-per-play in 2011 at Vanderbilt. #16 in 2012. #25 in 2013. Then he moved to Penn State, where his defense ranked #3 in 2014 and #15 in 2015. There may not be a track record of steady improvement, but when you have five top 25 defenses in five years, it's hard to argue with your results.
Of course, those stats aren't adjusted for strength of schedule, and some may complain that Vanderbilt played in a down SEC East and Penn State in a Big Ten conference that wasn't known for offense. But Jancek's Tennessee teams played in a down SEC East as well, and they ranked #100 (2013), #46 (2014), and #39 (2015) in yards-per-play. Despite much more recruiting stars, not a one of Jancek's defenses was more efficient than Shoop's worst Vandy unit. And it's not like Vanderbilt and Penn State changed conferences when Shoop arrived. The Commodores the year before Shoop showed up? #80. The year after Shoop left? #81. And three top 25 performances under Shoop. In his first year, their YPP defense improved by .98, from 5.80 to 4.82. The Nittany Lions didn't have as far to climb in the national rankings, but their YPP totals transformed even more dramatically, going from 5.30 defensive yards-per-play (#42 nationally) the year before Shoop arrived to 4.27 (#3) in Shoop's first year. There's a reason his salary at Penn State was twice what Tennessee paid Jancek.
When Butch Jones was hired, he promised fans that he would build "the best staff in America." Yet as his staff at Tennessee filled out, it looked much less like a collection of elite coaching talent and much more like a collection of coaches who had worked with Jones before. Shoop is a step away from the safe and towards the elite.
After an up-and-down first couple months on the job, Jones went out on the recruiting trail and started to win the loyalty of the Tennessee fan base with a star-studded class that included big name in-state talents like Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. After two ugly losses in the first month of 2013, Jones' Vols beat South Carolina 23-21. That Gamecocks team would finish #4 in the country. They remain the best win of Jones' career and Tennessee's best win since 2007. And the Shoop hire might be the most encouraging sign from his coaching staff since that day in October of 2013. Jones has already shown he can recruit. Jones has shown that he can motivate a team. But this is the first step in showing that he can recognize the flaws in his coaching staff and upgrade them with coaches who are not only talented but also bring in fresh ideas, simultaneously upgrading coaching quality and mitigating insularity.
Hiring Shoop doesn't answer every question facing Tennessee football. Jones must still prove that he can maintain his recruiting success when the "build something" and "play immediately" selling points fade away. The offense must learn to perform with a lead. And the staff still needs improvement--Don Mahoney's results with the offensive line have been questionable at best, and the Vols still lack a true quarterbacks coach. But it's a step in the right direction, and it answers a question that has been lingering since December of 2012. And in eight long months, Tennessee fans will get to see how it looks on the field when a talented defense gets a talented coordinator. Go Vols.