Derek Mason took the SEC Media Day stage a humbled man.
After his first season as a head coach in the SEC, a 3-9 record that included no SEC wins, Mason said he learned a lot, matured and was ready to move forward with a renewed attitude.
“I think me as a head coach, I made some assumptions a year ago about this football team,” Mason said. “I assumed that, just because we were in the SEC, that we play like an SEC team, and we didn't.”
But Mason said in the past eight months his team has changed. Thanks to strength and conditioning coach James Dobson, who came over from Nebraska, Vanderbilt looks like an SEC team. And the staff, which has four new position coaches, has more of an SEC mentality.
“The challenges were many. I think you have to learn how to manage where you're at, really who you are, and what your identity is,” Mason said. “We struggled to find identity. We had some missing pieces. What we've tried to do in the last eight months is try to right the wrong.”
The biggest change came when Mason fired assistant coach Dave Kotuski, who was the defensive playcaller a year ago, and replaced him with himself. Mason was an outstanding defensive coordinator at Stanford and was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top assistant.
But, when he first got the Vanderbilt job, he was overwhelmed and wasn’t sure he could juggle the duties of being a head coach and a coordinator.
“Things were just happening fast. So I had more on my plate and more to deal with at that point in time,” Mason said. “But in retrospect and having some experience behind me, I had a chance to look at who we are and what we are, and I thought (calling plays as a head coach) was maybe taboo because you don't see too many defensive coaches doing it. But I think what I just said is really a misnomer. If you're a defensive mind, if you're an offensive mind, you do what you know. I believe I know defensive football.”
Mason said he started toying with the idea after Vanderbilt was hammered 51-0 by Mississippi State. After interviewing several candidates, Mason couldn’t find someone who shared his vision for the defense, so he decided to rely on himself.
“After talking to coaches and interviewing guys, I felt like I didn't want to speak through anybody to talk about what the structure of our defense was going to be,” Mason said. “It needed to be direct, and if I'm going to be responsible, then I'll be responsible. So at that point in time, I figured it was best that I go ahead and move into that role, and I've been able to structure my day and move some things around, along with my staff, to make sure that our program doesn't suffer because I'm moving into a defensive coordinator role. Actually, it's been great. So I'm excited.”
On the other side of the ball, Mason is hoping former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig can inject some life into Vanderbilt’s lackluster offense. Mason also added Marc Mattioli as the safeties coach and Cortez Hankton as the new receivers coach.
Mason was at a disadvantage last year. He didn’t take the job until January and had just a month to recruit and two months to put together a staff. He feels a lot better about the pace of this offseason, but knows that SEC coaches aren't given a lot of time, especially since Mason’s predecessor James Franklin, had the Commodores peaking at 9-4 in 2012 and 2013.
“I've been coaching 22 years. So my understanding is that every year I coach on a one-year mentality,” Mason said. “That's a mindset. That's what you do. You understand exactly what this game is and what you have to do, and it's about production. We're going to be a better football team. What that is, I can't predict wins. But I do know, in terms of being competitive, doing the right things, and creating men that will thrive here in the SEC, I can do that.”
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