Next challenge for Derek Barnett and Vols defense: Stopping SEC's best offense
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Bob Shoop arrived at the perfect time.
Tennessee’s first-year defensive coordinator walked into talent on the defensive line and has already made an impact in taking over games at critical times through six games.
Shoop quickly formed a perfect match with defensive line coach Steve Stripling, whose group has shown improvement each year since arriving in 2013.
Derek Barnett’s arrival no doubt helped, but the Volunteers have steadily increased their sack total each year since.
Team 117 produced 18 sacks, Team 118 had 35, and Team 119 posted 30 in 2015. Wary of Barnett, opponents have sprinkled in more screen pass passes this season, which has put Team 120 on pace for 18 sacks in the regular season.
“This defense is resilient,” Stripling said of his defense after reaching the halfway point of the 2016 season. “I don’t know if I have ever been involved with a defense or team that isn’t fazed by anything. They just keep grinding. They don’t get down or panic. No one is yelling at each other. They just sit there and get ready to go in for the next series.
“A little bit of that may be because of coach (Butch) Jones telling them to win the snap and win the series. They seem to be very resilient and toughness is all part of that. That is just the kind of mindset this team has.”
The defensive ends for Tennessee have been the focal point for creating havoc in the backfield and placing the opposition in tough situations.
Barnett has been the leader, with five sacks, something he has been for three seasons now. Barnett has recorded 25 sacks and 42.5 TFLs for his career. More impressive: 22 of his sacks and 33.5 of his TFLs have come in SEC play, showing why he is a big-time player.
“I think defensive ends are a strength for us and Derek Barnett and Corey (Vereen) have played really well for us, but we need productivity from more than just those two guys, whether its generating a pass rush from the D-tackle, secondary or linebacker position,” Shoop said leading up to the Alabama game.
“We probably blitzed on third down a whole bunch last week. I know Derek Barnett dropped into coverage a couple of times. He wanted to rush the passer. On those plays, the quarterback was 1-of-10 for 14 yards and that was a screen pass we stopped them on, which was a positive. We are trying to find creative ways to pass rush and we will do the same thing this weekend.”
Alabama’s offense will be a different task, primarily because of Jalen Hurts’ ability. Hurts appears to be an equally fast, better throwing version of Trevor Knight, a quarterback capable of hurting offenses with his legs and arm.
Hurts ran for a team-high 146 yards in a comeback win at Ole Miss. He has passed for more than 250 yards in each of his past two games, SEC victories over Kentucky and Arkansas. He’s thrown four TDs against just one interception in that span.
Knight threw for 239 yards and ran for 110, including a 62-yard TD, last week in a double overtime win against Tennessee.
Like Knight, Hurts has plenty of help, too.
Stripling realizes this in preparation for the defending national champions.
“We always talk about being disruptive up front,” Stripling said. “Obviously, you would love to do that and get them off track. They’re a complete offense. They are very sound up front on the offensive line. They have outstanding running backs and wide outs. The quarterback can run with the football as well as throw it. You would like to be disruptive and be sound to keep them under control.”