Vanderbilt wrapped up its spring practices Friday, earlier than any other SEC team, after the Commodores dove right into preparations for the 2016 campaign amid an off-season with reason for optimism. After going winless in SEC play and 3–9 overall in 2014, head coach Derek Mason's program improved to 4–8 with two SEC wins—over Kentucky and Missouri—last season.
Now Vanderbilt hopes for another step forward in the SEC this fall. SI.com caught up with Mason to discuss 2016 expectations, the 'Dores' improved defense, his quarterback battle and more.
Campus Rush: Last spring you introduced 7 a.m. practices following a disappointing first season. Have your players gotten used to waking up early, or do they still rub their eyes from time to time?
Derek Mason: With these guys, we're dealing with the millennial generation. You bring kids in and turn on the music, and the music is their cup of coffee. We get the music cranked up, we let it go for about two minutes, and after that these guys are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
CR: You told SI last spring, "You give me a year, and I'll figure it out." It seemed like Vanderbilt figured some things out in 2015. How did it feel to notch a couple of SEC wins and gain some momentum?
DM: Looking at 2014 for what it was, there were a lot of things we needed to fix. What you try to do is make sure, first and foremost, that you can build the right culture. It was just making sure we try to play football the right way. Here, we call it "RTI". That stands for "relentless, tough and intelligent".
Now that we've had a chance to go back and look at the cutups and see where we were, we left a lot of football out there on the table in 2015. And that's encouraging for me as a coach, knowing and understanding that this group hasn't even come close to playing to its full potential. Now it's about gaining the 1 or 2% of football that's there to be gained. You only have so many opportunities. What our guys started to realize is, those mistakes, those mental errors, those penalties, those are things we can actually control.
I'm starting to see the changes not only culturally, but I'm starting to see football changes in terms of IQ and how we practice. Now it's more about what winning football looks like. For these guys, it's a different mentality. But you have to recalibrate it. Our 2015 season makes no guarantees for 2016 in terms of what this team will look like. We've worked really hard to try to transform and move this team forward.
CR: You opted against hiring a defensive coordinator before last season, instead choosing to call defensive plays yourself. As a result Vanderbilt jumped from 12th in the SEC in total defense to sixth in 2015. Did you enjoy holding the reins of your defense again?
DM: That's one thing that you don't get a chance to do as head coach sometimes. You miss the X's and O's. I really had to put in a plan that allowed me to be a head coach and the defensive coordinator. What I found in getting back in the room was, guys really wanted the information, they wanted to understand why we call certain calls, why we structurally align like we do.
I think what it did more than anything else was give guys confidence in being able to play this style of defense. Remember, we'd transitioned from a 4–3 to a 3–4. Anytime you do that, people are somewhat apprehensive of techniques because they feel uncomfortable. But part of growth is being uncomfortable. I just asked these guys to stretch themselves a bit. At the end of the process, they liked where they were. These guys were able to endure and figure out what I was talking about. Now there's full belief in who we are and what we are. Everybody's on board, and we've got the same mission.
CR: That defense loses four starters, including defensive end Caleb Azubike and linebacker Darreon Herring, a senior captain. Who fills those voids this spring?
DM: First of all, it's good to have Nigel Bowden back at linebacker after he missed most of last season with injury. I've seen Nigel do some things this spring that I didn't see last year going into fall camp. Having him and Zach Cunningham anchoring the two inside 'backer positions, it's phenomenal for us. That gives us two guys who understand how this conference works. We made some subtle changes by kicking linebacker Nehemiah Mitchell down to defensive end to solidify our defensive line depth.… And Nifae Lealao and Jay Woods have played well on the line this spring.
In looking at our best 11 football players, we had to find a way to get Oren Burks on the field. We moved him from safety to what we call the "star" position, or what's formally known as the Sam linebacker position, which has given us not only a fast, athletic pass-rusher but a guy who can also match up in coverage. And at corner, Tre Herndon and Torren McGaster have shown what you expect third year corners to be in this conference: Guys who can cover on islands.
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CR: Your quarterback battle is getting a lot of attention this spring. Kyle Shurmur was a highly touted signee who started the final five games as a true freshman last season. Still, it appears Wade Freebeck remains in the mix for the starting job. How do you see that race playing out?
DM: In [offensive coordinator] Andy Ludwig's second year, you see the maturation of the quarterback position as a whole. Getting true freshman Deuce Wallace enrolled early this spring has helped the competitive spirit in that room. He's put some pressure on these guys to make sure they stay ahead of him.
I think Kyle getting playing time a year ago really helped his maturation process in terms of understanding the quarterback has to lead men, take care of the football and manage the game. He and Wade Freebeck are going head-to-head right now, and it's a beautiful thing to see, two guys with extremely good arms having to strategically play the game the right way. There's almost a hair whisker that separates these two.
For a third-year guy like Wade, he's watched guys, he's had the chance to play, he's lost the opportunity to play, and now he's working extremely hard to make sure he's the guy. For Kyle, he had to play as a freshman and gained nothing but valuable experience in those games. But he's really trimmed his body down, his foot speed is much better than it was a year ago, and he's taking care of the football and managing the game the right way.
I believe that we have, on campus now, more collective quarterback talent than Vanderbilt's had in the last 20 years. But it's got to transfer from spring ball to summer to fall camp and into the 2016 season.
CR: Ralph Webb set a Vanderbilt sophomore record with 1,152 rushing yards in 2015. How important is his return for your offense?
DM: I'll tell you what, when you talk about Ralph Webb, that's music to my ears. He showed in year one, year two and heading into year three that he's a guy that can touch the ball as many times as you need him to touch it, and he's going to be steady. And he did it against some good teams; he had that big run [career-long 74 yards for a touchdown] against Florida.
Ralph has that ability to get the second level and take it to the house. I think that' s what he's becoming. Last year he played around 205–208 pounds, and this year he'll play around 210–212. What you're going to see is a guy who's every bit as strong and powerful as he was a year ago, but adding another dimension to his game in terms of catching the ball in the backfield.
But in this conference, you know you need more than one back. So looking at what sophomore Josh Crawford did a year ago and what junior Dallas Rivers showed us late in the year is truly exciting. We've also moved a guy by the name of Khari Blasingame from linebacker over to back. He's 232 pounds, so he's being used as a big back or fullback. We've got redshirt freshman Jaire George, who's healthy. That all makes us a different backfield. So I feel good about our depth going into year three.
CR: You now have two seasons under your belt as a head coach in the SEC. Is the Vanderbilt program where you expected it to be heading into your third season in Nashville?
DM: I believe we're right on pace to where we want to be. We believe in us. We don't need people to give us a pat on the back. We think the program's moving in the right direction. Under the tutelage of James Dobson, our strength and conditioning coach, Andy Ludwig and Jeff Genyk, our special teams coordinator, we are in a much better place, both culturally and schematically, than we were in 2014 or 2015. This group is poised to be much more mature in how the ebb and flow of these games will look for us.
Now what we need to do is hopefully manifest that in how we play. We need to move from just competing in games to winning games. I think they're hungry enough because they've had enough bad things come their way to recognize the opportunity to win. But that's not going to happen by accident. My expectations for this football team haven't waned one bit.