It all began as a lark. Or, at the very least, as a long shot.
Bob Shoop didn't know James Franklin personally, but he knew a guy named Don Brown who had coached with him at Maryland. Not long after Franklin had been hired by Vanderbilt in December 2010, Shoop was talking to Brown, and the conversation turned to the Commodores' new head coach. "Give him my number," Shoop said. "If he's looking for a defensive coordinator, I'll get the job done for him."
As it happened, Franklin was looking for a defensive coordinator. But Shoop, who was coaching at William & Mary at the time, had been joking around; you don't go straight from Division I-AA to a coordinator post in the Southeastern Conference, no matter how confident you may be. As he wandered through Detroit Metropolitan Airport on his way to his native Pittsburgh and then on to Dallas for the American Football Coaches Association convention, Shoop was not compulsively checking his cellphone, hoping to receive a call that would change his life.
But then the phone rang.
It was Franklin.
"He asked me if I was going to the convention and if I had any of my video with me," Shoop recalled. He didn't, but they decided to meet anyway. Shoop landed in Dallas at noon, and by 1 p.m. he was sitting in a room with Franklin and staff assistants Jemal Griffin and Andy Frank. "I didn't even have a suit," Shoop recalled. "I just had what I had with me.
"But if you know Coach Franklin, it takes two seconds to recognize the juice and the energy that he's got. It took me about two seconds to realize that this was a guy I would really like to work for. He sold me on his vision for building a football program, a championship football program, and I think I sold him on my vision for building a championship defense."
Shoop spent the next three seasons in Nashville, where he did indeed get the job done for Franklin. The Commodores finished in the national top 25 in total defense all three seasons. A year ago, they forced 30 turnovers, the nation's 10th-highest total, including 24 over the team's final eight games.
Shoop's defensive units at Vanderbilt were known for their attacking style and fierce attitude. Franklin gave him a lot of freedom to design schemes and game plans, but he did make two demands: He wanted the Commodores to challenge every throw, and he insisted that they run to the ball better than any team in the country.
Franklin and Shoop have since left Nashville for University Park, but while the locale may be different, the goals are not. They want Penn State's defense to be fierce and aggressive, and they are going to be highly proactive in instilling the attitude they are looking to see. When linebacker Mike Hull was not among the 76 players on the Bednarik Award's watch list, Shoop shot him a text. "Here's a guy who is next in a long line of great Penn State linebackers," he said. "So that didn't go unnoticed by him, and it didn't go unnoticed by me."
Shoop uses those same tactics to stoke his own competitive fire. He keeps a newspaper clipping in his office in which a Nashville sports columnist wrote that Vanderbilt fans should "prepare to be underwhelmed" by Franklin's coaching staff, whose members had come primarily from Division I-AA and the lower levels of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Two years later, the columnist penned a mea culpa, admitting he had misjudged Franklin's hires. Shoop remembers that vividly, too. "It's funny, the little things that motivate you," he said.
Nobody at Penn State is underestimating these guys given how they turned Vanderbilt around, but Shoop and fellow defensive assistants Brent Pry (linebackers), Sean Spencer (line) and Terry Smith (cornerbacks) have inherited a difficult situation, as the NCAA sanctions have stripped PSU of the kind of depth it is accustomed to having going into a new season.
Shoop recently took the time to talk with BWI about how the Nittany Lions' defense is shaping up heading into the 2014 season. Here, edited for length, is what he said:
How does it affect your ability to put together a defense when some of the players who may well end up on the two-deep are freshmen who have only just recently arrived on campus?
Shoop: I guess the way I look at it is that you go through the spring and you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your unit on defense and you say, I feel comfortable with this particular unit, I feel good at this position, but where do we need to plug holes? In the NFL, you'd sign a free agent or address it through the draft. Obviously, we address it through recruiting. We'll say, we really need to look at Koa Farmer or Christian Campbell or Grant Haley. Jason Cabinda or Troy Reeder might need to be ready to rock and roll. At other positions you might have a little more depth and you might say that a Torrence Brown can redshirt, something along those lines.
With Ben Kline out, you're going to be thinner at linebacker than anticipated. So what will you be looking to see from Cabinda and Reeder in preseason practice?
Shoop: I always say that opportunity is the key to life, and they're certainly going to get an opportunity. You know, Kline didn't go through spring ball, either, and he had limited reps from last year. It's truly unfortunate, because he's one of the good guys. He makes coaching very rewarding. He stands for all that's right in college football. He's a good person who's very involved in community service. He's an excellent student.
I just talked to him yesterday and we discussed ways he can stay involved in the program. He's going to help me out, he's going to help Brent Pry out and really provide leadership. We're hoping he'll stay active and provide a role model for some of those young players. I'm excited about that.
But yeah, it's a challenge. Rather than recruit players to fit a scheme, we'll tailor our schemes to fit what our players can do. So in addition to getting Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder in a position to be ready, there are things we can do with that field linebacker position, that Sam or "star." Koa Farmer is a guy we've talked about trying to get ready at that position.
The plan going into camp is that Mike Hull is the Mike linebacker. He's the quarterback of the defense and is the centerpiece of the whole thing. Other than that, we're excited about Nyeem [Wartman] and Brandon Bell. Brandon went through all 15 practices. Nyeem was injured early in practice and wasn't able to finish spring ball. But he's fine. I would suggest to you that both of those guys have an incomplete grade. We're trying to identify what their strengths and weaknesses are, but we do know they're good players. Gary Wooten went through the spring and did a nice job backing up Mike.
But Jason and Troy are in a position where honestly they have a great opportunity at either the Mike or the Will, what we call the "box" or inside 'backers. And we're really going to cross-train Koa Farmer in many ways at strong safety and at that field linebacker position, along with Von Walker, who played out there during the spring as well.
What kind of attributes are you looking for from the guys who play the star position?
Shoop: It could be a lot of things. The game is changing with all these spread offenses and three- and four-wide receiver sets. You try to put as much athletic ability and speed on the field as you possibly can. At Vanderbilt for us, that guy was Karl Butler, who was recruited as a free safety or strong safety and kind of evolved into that position. It's a hybrid outside linebacker-strong safety. He's got to be able to defend the wide field, got to be able to blitz off the edge. If his skill set lends itself to this, he's in some ways like a nickel who can cover a slot receiver.
Depending on the game, that star position can be a three-way rotation. He can be a linebacker body-type, like a Brandon Bell, he can be a safety body type - a Koa Farmer - and a lot of times we use a corner in that particular position - a Jordan Lucas or Adrian Amos. Those guys were trained at the star position in the spring. It depends on what the situation calls for.
Given the way the game is evolving, with offenses getting better and better, do you see defenses ever regaining the upper hand? Or is this just the new normal?
Shoop: I don't know if you'll see a lot of 10-7 games again, but a lot of times, it's about redefining what having the upper hand means. Maybe you reassess what quality defense is. Maybe instead of looking at yards per game, you look at yards per play. Instead of points per game, you look at points per series, because the number of snaps is going up. If the number of snaps grows, it's natural that there are going to be more yards and more points. So there's really nothing you can do about that because of the number of snaps that occur.
I do think it's an ever-evolving chess match between offensive coaches and defensive coaches. Whether it was the wishbone of Texas in the '70s, whether it was the run-and-shoot of Houston in the '90s, the defenses eventually catch up, and then the offenses continue to evolve and the defenses continue to evolve. We've reassessed what we define as good defense. Good defense is scoring one more point than your opponent.