On Friday, Derek Mason became the 28th head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores. His hiring maintained the momentum from a movement James Franklin popularized - the idea that this is a Brand New Vandy.
Mason can boast some similarities to the former Commodore coach. Both men are in their 40s and came into coaching after playing football for lesser-known NCAA programs (Northern Arizona for Mason, East Stroudsburg State for Franklin). They each built reputations through a nomadic stretch of assistant jobs, as both coaches ping-ponged across Division I throughout the early 00s. They even both spent time in the NFC North as NFL assistants (Mason with the Vikings, Franklin with the Packers), but never crossed paths in earnest despite taking comparable steps to the helm of an SEC program.
While Franklin has the edge as the hotter name in 2014 thanks to his 24-15 tenure in Nashville, Mason has a higher profile than the former VU coach had when he took over back in 2011. Let's take a look back at the vivacious assistant that Vandy plucked from the ACC. Franklin was the coach-in-waiting for a Maryland team that had gone 11-14 in the previous two seasons. Though he was regarded as a strong recruiter and an offensive specialist, he had yet to make a major name for himself - even among Vanderbilt officials, who tagged Gus Malzahn for their coaching vacancy before turning to CJF.
Mason, on the other hand, had developed into one of the hottest coordinators in the country before getting pegged by the Commodores (the other, arguably, was Clemson's Chad Morris, who also got a long look from VU this winter). He oversaw a program that went to three straight BCS bowls thanks in part to his leadership from the sideline. As Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw rightfully gleaned most of the credit for the Cardinal's resurgence, Mason quietly plugged along and gave Stanford the plans they needed to become one of the most successful programs of this decade.
Mason's masterpiece was generating a defense that could shut down opponents in a conference that featured high-powered offenses. That's reflected in a 34-7 record in his three years as DC. It's also reflected in some of the toughest defensive statistics the NCAA saw during a boom period for high-flying offenses.
|Year||Stanford Points Allowed||Stanford Yards Allowed per Game|
That's an impressive set of statistics, especially when you consider who Stanford played over that stretch. The biggest tests in Mason's Cardinal career came against Oregon, a team held up by many as the offensive standard in college football. The new Vanderbilt coach faced the Ducks three times as the team's defensive coordinator. While his first effort against Oregon ended in a blowout loss, the Cardinal rebounded to shut down their Pac-12 rivals in each of the past two seasons.
|Year||Oregon PPG||Oregon Points vs. Stanford|
That's a tremendous accomplishment, and something that will be extremely valuable in an SEC where spread offenses and high-octane attacks have replaced the smashmouth defenses of the past.
However, one of the biggest questions SEC fans will have about Mason is whether or not he can develop players. Vanderbilt has made a splash with a pair of top 25 recruiting classes in the past two years, but even the best signees in school history have lagged behind the conference standard. In order for the new coach to be successful at the SEC's smallest school, he's going to have to be able to wring every ounce of potential from his players.
Let's take a look at some of the guys who have come up with the Cardinal during his tenure. Mason started with Stanford in 2010, so in 2012 and 2013, these all-conference players took the field with at least two years of his influence under their belts. Since Mason was the defensive coordinator at the time, we've decided to look only at defensive starters.
|2013 First-Team All Pac-12||Recruit Ranking|
|Shayne Skov||4 Stars|
|Ben Gardner||2 Stars|
|Trent Murphy||3 Stars|
|Ed Reynolds||3 Stars|
|2013 Honorable Mention All Pac-12||Recruit Ranking|
|Henry Anderson||3 Stars|
|Alex Carter||4 Stars|
|Jordan Richards||3 Stars|
|A.J. Tarpley||3 Stars|
|2012 First-Team All Pac-12||Recruit Ranking|
|Chase Thomas||3 Stars|
|2012 Second-Team All Pac-12||Recruit Ranking|
|2012 Honorable Mention All Pac-12||Recruit Ranking|
|Usua Amanam||3 Stars|
|Terrence Brown||2 Stars|
|Terrence Stephens||4 Stars|
Over that two year span, Mason coached a bevy of all-conference performers. Not a single one falls outside of Vanderbilt's recruiting scope. Players like Stephens and Skov represent the height of the Cardinal's recruiting efforts, but most of their success stories come from guys who were moderately rated as recruits. Two players - Terrence Brown and Ben Gardner - even took the familiar Commodore path of rising up as a two-star high school athlete to make a major impact for their team.
Mason will have plenty to work with at Vanderbilt. The Commodores will give him a handful of four-star players to work with as the team replaces seven starters from their defensive front. That includes young guns like Caleb Azubike, Zach Cunningham, Jake Sealand, Ryan White, and Jay Woods. If he can have similar success in Nashville as he did unlocking a player's potential in the Bay Area, then the 'Dores could put together a scary product on the field.
Derek Mason proved that he could win as a coordinator with Stanford. Now he'll have to prove that he can roll that momentum into victories as a head coach in the country's toughest conference. That won't be easy, but Mason has a better starting resume than the guy he replaced - the same guy who proved that the Commodores could be relevant in the SEC. If the former Stanford assistant can build off that like he had in Palo Alto, then the SEC East could see a new, black-and-gold power rise from within its ranks.