It’s 2015 Penn State all over again.
That was the initial reaction I had months ago when news came out that Bob Shoop accepted the position of Mississippi State defensive coordinator.
The situation that Shoop inherited in Starkville will share plenty of similarities to the one he had in State College a few years ago. If your brain is only allowing you to think of the Joe Moorhead-coached offenses or Saquon Barkley when it comes to recent Penn State squads, let me give you a little refresher.
In Shoop’s final year at Penn State, he had one of the top defensive lines in the country. The Lions were tied with Arizona State for the FBS lead in sacks per game (3.54), and they were ranked sixth in tackles for loss.
Carl Nassib (a former walk-on), Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel were all drafted the following season after they each exceeded 11 tackles for loss (they combined for 45.5 TFLs in 2015). Nassib won the Lombardi Award, Johnson was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and Zettel finished his career ranked seventh in program history in sacks.
The Lions had the No. 26 scoring defense thanks to some dominant play up front. Mississippi State might be even more loaded on the defensive line than Shoop’s 2015 Penn State squad. The comps are pretty obvious.
Nassib? That’s Montez Sweat — the experienced, polished edge-rusher who can take over a game.
Johnson? That’d be Jeffery Simmons — the bulldozing interior lineman who makes one question how someone so explosive can weigh 310 pounds.
And Zettel? That’s gotta be Gerri Green — the versatile, unselfish senior captain who can surprise teams with his athleticism.
Are you seeing the similarities yet? You should be. At least up front. One could argue that with Mark McLaurin back, Shoop has his most capable ball-hawking safety yet (Lamar Jackson would probably agree with that).
Upon Shoop’s arrival, Mississippi State switched to the 4-3, just like the one Penn State played in 2015. Shoop will try and take advantage of MSU’s depth on the defensive line, especially with Chauncey Rivers eligible for 2018.
With perhaps the exception of the disaster that was the 2017 Tennessee team, getting quality defensive line play has never really been much of an issue for Shoop. Speaking of that disaster at Tennessee, Shoop said that he got the ultimate vote of confidence when Moorhead recruited him to come to Starkville.
“Listen, don’t worry about those last two years (at Tennessee),” Moorhead told Shoop as Shoop recalled via The Clarion Ledger. “I got this situation at Mississippi State. I know the job you did at Vanderbilt. I know the job you did at Penn State. Sit tight. It’s going to work out.”
Shoop didn’t exactly leave Tennessee or Penn State on good terms (the back-and-forth lawsuit about Shoop’s Penn State buyout was bizarre). Moorhead’s hope is that the same doesn’t happen in Starkville. While it’s Moorhead’s first season, Shoop is MSU’s fifth defensive coordinator in as many years. The Bulldogs need defensive stability, and they need Shoop to deliver with a talented, veteran-laden defense.
At Tennessee, Shoop got a pass not only for 2017, but for all the injuries the Vols suffered in 2016 (that team finished 95th in total defense). Even that 2015 Penn State team with all of that defensive dominance was just 7-6 because of how much the offense struggled. Butch Jones and James Franklin were easier postgame targets than Shoop during his 2-year runs at Tennessee and Penn State.
Well, except after this play (via Zach.h):
There won’t be any excuses for Shoop at MSU. The Bulldogs are built to win now.
MSU is more than a few solid defensive linemen and a household name at quarterback. It’s a 9-win team that returns the most production of any SEC squad, including 8 starters from a defense that was ranked No. 26 in scoring last year. There could easily be 4 defensive players drafted next year.
Shoop has also never shared the sidelines with an offensive mind like Moorhead. With all due respect to Franklin and Jones, I trust Moorhead’s ability to sustain drives and take pressure off the defense much more than either of them. In case you forgot, Franklin handed Moorhead the keys to his offense after 2 years of subpar units (Shoop remembers that all too well).
If this MSU defense that takes a step back in Year 1 under Shoop, one will have to question him as the long-term solution. If it’s Moorhead’s offense that always has to bail out Shoop’s defense, it’ll look like less of a coincidence that Shoop is at his fourth school in 6 years. If it’s the defense’s fault that MSU fails to match some sky-high preseason expectations, there won’t be people making excuses for Shoop.
It’s been 7 years since the Bulldogs started the season as a Top-25 team. That drought will end this year. MSU fans hope the revolving door of defensive coordinators will also end in 2018.
Then again, maybe they don’t.
Manny Diaz and Todd Grantham were one-and-done in Starkville and that worked out pretty well. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Shoop left for a head coaching job after he led a top-20 defense for an MSU team that won 10 games.
It’s at least better than the alternative. That is, Moorhead fires Shoop at season’s end because the MSU defense reverts to its pre-Grantham level. First-year coach or not, Moorhead seems like a no-nonsense guy who isn’t going to accept mediocrity. He won’t give Shoop a long leash just because of their Pittsburgh roots, or because Shoop put a bug on Franklin’s ear about hiring Moorhead as his offensive coordinator at Penn State.
It’s interesting that Shoop left Penn State the same offseason that Moorhead arrived. That was the last time Shoop led a quality defense, and that was the last time that Moorhead was a no-name coordinator. A lot changed in the past 2 years.
All that matters now is Shoop has a prime opportunity teed up in Starkville, and he best not whiff.