The last four coaches to come to Vanderbilt took over teams that had won two games the year prior.
Derek Mason isn’t in that predicament.
The Commodores were 9-4 last season, their second consecutive 9-4 campaign, and have been to a school record three consecutive bowl games.
“For me, looking at this program, now, you're right, it's different,” Mason said during Monday's SEC media day. “It's different. (Former coach) James (Franklin) established this program. I would have took this job had they been coming off an 0-11 stint. Doesn't matter to me.
“I mean, the idea of coming here now, James did the legwork, there's no question, and Bobby Johnson did the legwork before him when you talk about the recruits playing at Vanderbilt the last three years.”
Vanderbilt has definitely shaken off its “Smart Kid School” persona and become a legitimate foe in the SEC. And Mason is determined to keep it that way.
Even though he had some early struggles recruiting, Mason used his knowledge and contacts from working at Stanford, a similarly branded university, and did a national outreach for talent instead of keeping within the confines of the South.
“Vanderbilt is a national brand,” Mason said. “The Southeast, as well as the Midwest, produces a lot of talent. With our brand, with our academic requirements, is going national. In going national, we were able to solidify a pretty good recruiting class. I say 'pretty good' because they'll be measured by how they play, but a pretty good recruiting class in two weeks. If I was going regional, I would have struggled. You have to understand who you are, where you're at. I think I understand the branding, where we are.”
But Mason isn’t ready to rest on just being improved. After seeing firsthand how Stanford was able to transform itself into one of the premier football programs in the country, Mason has similar goals for the Commodores, even in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
“My expectation is to push the envelope a little bit,” Mason said. “We have to move past the idea of playing for nine wins. Nine wins, it's really exceptional. At the end of the day why have nine when you can have ten. Why settle for ten when you can have 11? That's the way I think. That's the way I wake up. That's the way I want my team to be. Dream big, you can accomplish big things. Dream small, you fall short.”
Not ready to name a starting quarterback
Mason has a timeline for naming a starting quarterback — it’s by the season opener against Temple on Aug. 28.
Mason told media Monday that he wanted a quarterbacking competition during fall camp to see who would be the best fit for his system and could continue Vanderbilt’s success.
“When I look at naming a quarterback, I'm not going to be pressed into naming a quarterback,” he said. I think what we'll do is we'll go through the process. We have plenty of evaluation time to make the right decision.”
Mason did note that sophomore Patton Robinette does have a slight lead in the competition over redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and a slew of newcomers. In all, six players will be competing for the starting and backup roles.
Robinette threw for 642 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions in spot time last season.
“I do want to name a starter,” Mason said. “For what we're doing and how we want to do it, a two quarterback system is not the way I want to go. I believe there should be a starter and there should be a guy behind him to watch and learn and understand the situation. Where the situation arises where he needs to play, he'll be ready. I feel confident in that.”
Bringing in the defense
Since 2011, Mason had been a defensive coordinator with Stanford, so he prides himself in reading defenses and learning how to slow them down.
Last season, Stanford ranked 16th nationally in total defense and third against the run. It allowed just 19 points per game.
Mason wasn’t so bold to say Vanderbilt could put up similar numbers in a conference that used to be known for its defense, but has increasingly become offensive in the past couple years, but he did say he’s picking up some patterns that could give Vandy the edge in certain situations.
“For me, just the idea of trying to find ways to slow it down, trying to find ways to get an edge or a level playing field is what we were looking for,” Mason said. “In the SEC, it's moved, it's changed. I shouldn't say it's changed, the package has changed. When you look at a team like Auburn, how they run the football, it's no different than Alabama, they just do it a different way. Really when it's all said and done, the packaging has changed, but the idea is still the same. Control the clock. (Steve) Spurrier is doing the same thing.
When you look, coach Spurrier, coach (Les) Miles, all the rest of these coaches, they truly understand what the game comes down to: possessions and points.”
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