NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A few hundred fans lined Jess Neely Drive outside Vanderbilt Stadium as Derek Mason emerged from the McGugin Center on April 12. One hour remained before the debut spring game of Mason’s tenure, and the Commodores first-year coach, donning a black golf shirt and black shorts, led his players across the street as part of the program’s “Star Walk” tradition. They passed through a horde of fans and cheerleaders along the way.
Later that morning, when Mason addressed reporters following the scrimmage, someone asked him how it felt to have his first spring practice behind him. Mason let out a sigh.
“Wow, I just took my first deep breath,” he joked.
Mason might as well have been referring to his entire three months in Nashville. Since leaving his role as Stanford’s defensive coordinator to become Vanderbilt’s head coach on Jan. 17, he has been tasked with taking over a program fresh off back-to-back nine-win seasons. Mason replaces James Franklin, who filled the coaching vacancy at Penn State on Jan. 11. Under Franklin, Vandy achieved unprecedented success and signed its highest-rated recruiting classes in school history.
MANDEL: James Franklin bringing new sense of energy to Penn State
What Mason doesn’t want is to allow that momentum to slip. Prior to Franklin’s three-year stint, Vanderbilt was an SEC member in name only. The Commodores claimed just two winning seasons between 1980 and 2010. But Mason left a prime position in the Pac-12 because he believes he has the pedigree to keep the program heading in the right direction. Both Stanford and Vanderbilt rank among the top 20 national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Under David Shaw, Mason helped shape a stellar football team at a school lauded for academics. The coach thinks he can do the same in Nashville.
“Kids want this brand,” Mason told SI.com recently. “There are probably five schools in the country with that academic reputation that play big-time football, and being one of those, we’re at an advantage.
“Football is like a carton of milk. When it’s all said and done, there’s an expiration date on when that ends. Football is going to end someday. To have a chance to play in the SEC and get an education from probably the best academic institution in this area, and one of the best cities in this country, it’s something that’s easy to sell.”
Mason had his work cut out for him upon his arrival at Vanderbilt. The Commodores were losing prospects after Franklin’s departure to Penn State, as many followed the former coach to Happy Valley. At least 10 players decommitted from Vandy immediately after the coaching change, with five ultimately signing with the Nittany Lions.
Caleb Azubike and Vandy's defense are adopting a 3-4 scheme for 2014. (Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Mason and his staff spent their first week on campus evaluating recruits who had been among Vanderbilt’s previous group of targets. After locking down “four or five guys who we really liked,” Mason brought those players in and secured their commitments. Then his staff hit the road, traveling from California to Texas to Florida in search of new signees. By his second weekend on the job, Mason had 16 total commitments, and he landed a 22-player class on National Signing Day. That group included four-star defensive end Nifae Lealao, who chose Vandy over the likes of UCLA, Oregon and Wisconsin, among others.
Remember, Mason has a history of molding unheralded recruits into big-time players. Former Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy was a three-star prospect before blossoming into a consensus All-America under Mason. At Vanderbilt, the coach thinks he can work the same magic.
“We were able to land what some may see as a good class, but we feel it was a great class,” Mason said. “There are a lot of two- and three-star players -- much like [former All-SEC wide receiver] Jordan Matthews was when he came to Vanderbilt -- who are going to help move this program forward ... That model has proved successful for us.”
Spring practice was the next step in Mason’s transition. He no longer needed to sell his staff to new players. Now, his goal was selling a philosophy. On the field, Mason and defensive coordinator David Kotulski installed Mason’s preferred 3-4 scheme in a unit with only three returning starters. Key defensive ends like Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann switched to linebacker. Outside linebacker Darreon Herring, who emerged as a difference-maker in 2013, moved to the inside. The 4-3 approach served as Vanderbilt’s base for three seasons under Franklin, so players expected some growing pains. Said Herring: “It was basically a fresh start.”
But Mason’s focus on the big picture clicked.
“I think in several defenses you see guys who are just focused on what they’re supposed to do, as opposed to what the defense is supposed to do as a whole,” Azubike said. “[Mason’s staff] taught us the game before they taught us the play. They taught us to look at the whole defense and be able to know what everybody on that particular play does. … They’re teaching us the whole game as opposed to what you’re supposed to do. That’s helped us a lot, because we look at the defense as a whole, not individually.”
Mason’s defense isn’t the only difference from Vanderbilt’s previous regime. His presence is also drastically different. Franklin utilized a brash approach to both coaching and recruiting. He brought attention to the program because of his personality. Mason is much more soft-spoken and reserved. That’s how he dictates practice, too.
“Not much yelling,” sophomore wide receiver Jordan Cunningham said. “Just a little bit of yelling here and there. I feel like [the coaches] relate to us. We’re able to talk to them and communicate on every little thing and pay attention to the details more. They just want the best of us.”
According to Mason, people forget that coaching is teaching. “Listen, it’s a tough game,” he said. “It’s not a mistake-free game. The thing I have to do is make sure I invest in [players’] abilities to be confident. Mistakes are going to happen. I need to take a teaching moment and make the teaching moment work and move forward.”
That mindset has worked in the past. Stanford’s defense allowed a mere 4.86 yards per play in 2013, and the Cardinal were the only team to stifle Oregon’s potent offense in each of the past two seasons. That’s good news for a Vandy unit that surrendered 24.6 points per game last fall.
Of course, there’s more on Mason’s plate this time around. He must oversee an offense that will feature a new starting quarterback, either in sophomore Patton Robinette or redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Mason brought in Karl Dorrell as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach to ease the transition. A former head coach at UCLA, Dorrell’s Bruins boasted the fifth-best scoring attack in the country in 2005.
Over the last three seasons, Vandy began to realize its program doesn't have to be a cellar-dweller. Mason knows the recipe for success is different in Nashville than it is in Tuscaloosa or Gainesville. Still, he maintains that the tools are in place. It’s only a matter of time before the Commodores see results once again.