Two years ago this week, on a stormy night in Nashville, Derek Mason led the Commodores onto the field for the first time as head coach.
His team proceeded to get blown out 37-7 by the Temple Owls.
Mason played three quarterbacks during his first game as head coach
The opening night loss halted the momentum of three years of unprecedented success for Vanderbilt football under coach James Franklin. The Commodores had made three consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history and had two consecutive nine-win seasons.
2016 is year three of the Mason Era, and the Commodores have come a long way from that stormy night in 2014. In his first two seasons, the former Stanford defensive coordinator has implemented his culture and become familiar with his squad.
“I think, as we’ve gotten older, the culture of this football team has changed,” Mason told the Vanderbilt Hustler in an exclusive interview. “When I first got here, it was just everybody getting to know everybody. There was some disconnect. In year two, there’s a little more comfort in knowing and understanding what the expectations are. In year three, it’s about winning. These guys have primed themselves during the offseason to be ready to go win ball games.”
In year three, it’s about winning. Derek Mason, Head Coach
In year three, Mason has finally molded the program into his own, as the Franklin era fades from memory. When he stepped into the role, Mason didn’t think he had any lofty standards to meet with the team he had in 2014.
“I think it was a much different football team when Coach Franklin got here,” he said. “Coach Franklin did a marvelous job, he’s a fantastic coach. I think the biggest thing he really encountered was a group of junior and senior players that were primed and ready, like (future NFL players) Jordan Matthews, Kenny Ladler, Andre Hal and Casey Hayward.”
“Those guys were ready to play. I inherited a group that hadn’t done as much winning. They didn’t quite have that sort of edge they needed to have. This group has grown into it. They have the edge. Now, it’s their time.”
A player’s coach
Redshirt junior wide receiver C.J. Duncan said Mason has helped instill a sense of responsibility and accountability amongst his players over his first two seasons.
“He really helps us grow as men first, and then players after that,” Duncan said. “Once you mature as a person, you grow and you learn different things. It also helps you on the field. That type of culture and responsibility, taking accountability and holding your own weight. That’s the biggest thing I think I’ve learned personally with Coach Mason.”
Linebacker Nigel Bowden echoed Duncan’s sentiments, saying Mason has become more aggressive in his coaching style, forcing players to be responsible for even the smallest mistakes.
This group has grown into it. They have the edge. Now, it’s their time. Derek Mason
As for his own view of his coaching style, Mason said he has been able to rely on the people around him more as he has built his staff and seen his players grow up.
“Leadership-wise, I’ve learned how to trust my coaches and the staff that I have,” he said. “I’ve really learned how to trust my leadership because it has grown. You talk about guys like Oren Burks, Zach Cunningham, Landon Stokes, Nigel Bowden and even Will Holden and Ralph Webb on the other side. Those guys were young guys a couple years ago. Now, those guys have made their marks and earned their way a little bit. They’ve still got a lot to prove, and so do I. We’re all in the same boat and we all have a chip on our shoulder.”
Both Duncan and Bowden missed extended time last season due to injury. Duncan sat out the entire season with a lower leg injury, and Bowden did not play after Week Two due to a concussion. They both said Mason helped them through their injuries and had the utmost confidence that they would return to the field ready to compete.
One of the unique ways Mason runs his team is his control of the defense. He acts as defensive coordinator, while handing almost complete control of the offense to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
“Coach Mason has been great to work for in that regard,” Ludwig said of this coaching setup. “It’s a great opportunity for me, and it’s a great responsibility. He entrusts the production of the offense to me and we’re just looking to do a very good job for him.”
Even though he doesn’t directly control the offense, Mason still has the final decision on a starting quarterback. Last season, he waited until the night of the first game to name Johnny McCrary as the starter. This time around, he has left no speculation, having named Kyle Shurmur as starting quarterback in July. Mason said he learned from what happened last year and, being two years wiser, decided to name a starter early.
What’s next for the Commodores
In 2015, the team grew even more, despite not making a bowl game. Mason led his team to its first SEC victory since 2013 against Missouri and registered a second league win over Kentucky. Vanderbilt finished fourth in the SEC East, an improvement from the prior season’s last place finish.
This season, the Commodores find themselves in uncharted territory: People are picking them to win. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit picked Vanderbilt to be the top surprise bowl team this season, and FOX Sports’ Clay Travis predicted Vanderbilt will go 7-5 and qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2013. According to Duncan, however, it’s no big deal.
“That’s good to hear,” he said of the prediction. “But, we’re planning on winning more than seven.”
As Mason looks to lead the Commodores back to bowl eligibility, he says he’s not nervous about the season ahead. The time to be nervous is long gone.
“No nerves, just excited,” he said. “You’re nervous in year one because you don’t know what to expect. Year two, you’re trying to get a feel for your team. Year three, I know what my team is. I’ve got a good feeling about what this football team is. They understand my expectations. We work hard together to make sure that the leadership, the dynamics of how we want to play, when we want to play, how we want to show up, those are things that have been put in place.”
The Commodores take on the South Carolina Gamecocks at 7 p.m. at Vanderbilt Stadium in front of a national TV audience on ESPN.
“Now, what we have to do is play big on the big stage and trust the training,” Mason said.