KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defense last season fell well short of Bob Shoop's lofty standard as a defensive coordinator.
The engineer of five consecutive top-25 defenses at Vanderbilt and Penn State didn't elevate the Volunteers as expected in 2016, and a rash of injuries, disconnect among the staff and more contributed to Shoop's maiden Tennessee unit finishing 95th nationally in total defense after a startling November implosion.
Shoop already has designs on a second-year revival.
"Last year was kind of a unique year, and sometimes it's difficult when you come into a staff and you're the only new guy on the staff on the side of a ball," he said before Wednesday night's recruiting celebration for fans at the Tennessee Theatre.
"You're trying to fit into a culture. Rather than putting your stamp on things, you're trying to fit in and understand things like 'T-tough, 63 (effort), Orange Swarm' and all the things that Coach (Butch Jones) preaches all the time. To me, I feel much more comfortable now, and I'm really looking forward to year two and putting my stamp on things.
"That includes the recruiting piece, saying this is what we're looking for at D-tackle, this is what we're looking for at D-end, this is what we're looking for at the linebacker position, this is the body type and speed and skill set we're looking for at different positions. I'm excited about the young players on the roster, and I'm excited about these young players."
Shoop's primary recruiting role following his hire a year ago was helping Tennessee get to the finish line with Tyler Byrd, Nigel Warrior and Jonathan Kongbo. He had a greater input and impact on the 2017 class, and he's happy with the haul.
Tennessee signed six defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
"Certainly we need to improve our run defense," Shoop said, "and we got some guys in the front seven that I'm very excited about, guys who possibly can come in and compete.
"At defensive tackle, Matt Butler's a Parade All-American and a high-character kid. We're very excited about him. Kivon Bennett, the son of Cornelius Bennett, is a great story, and to get him was exciting. Eric Crosby's been committed to us for a long time.
"At the defensive end position, to get Marquez Bembry, who is a 100-meter champ in the state of Georgia, Ryan Thaxton and Deandre Johnson as an early enrollee, a kid on a state championship team out of Florida, was exciting.
"I contend that our three linebackers, they were the guys that we wanted. We got A, B and C. Solon Page, I've always said, is one of the most underrated players in the '17 class. Will Ignont's one of the top inside linebackers in Alabama and in the Southeast region, really. For Shanon Reid to be on campus and working hard is really exciting.
"With the way we sort of played at the end of year, we have spots everywhere, and there's going to be competition everywhere."
Tennessee's secondary started 11 combinations in 13 games due to suspensions and injuries, and the newcomers join the returning players in trying to take advantage of a clean slate with new position coach Charlton Warren.
"I really like the guys in the secondary," Shoop said.
"Cheyenne Labruzza has been committed to us for a while and he's an A-1 kid. As good of a player he is, he's an even better person. (Shawn) Shamburger out of Colquitt County in Georgia is a legitimate dude who we think can compete for playing time. The other corner is Terrell Bailey out of New Orleans. He plays against good competition all the time and has elite ball skills.
"The two safeties are from the midstate. Maleik Gray and Theo Jackson are really good players. Theo's got great range and some corner skills, and Maleik has toughness and physicality and brings a nasty demeanor."
Asked about potential schematic tweaks or an overhaul in mentality, Shoop said it's "to be determined." He's discussed potential changes with Warren, defensive line coach Steve Stripling and linebackers Tommy Thigpen. This week he began individual meetings with players to gauge their thoughts.
"Rather than recruit players to fit a scheme," he said, "it's about tailoring the scheme around the talent and the players, so that's important. You may see more 4-3 than 4-2-5 concepts, but to the naked eye it won't look a whole lot different. We talk about style of play. That's what we want to do.
"If I were to summarize it, three things we need to improve: less drama, less injuries and less explosive plays. If we can get that, we have a chance to be pretty good."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.