Let me start of by saying if I ever got the chance, I would love to work for a coach like Derek Mason.
But the cloud of doubt is hanging high over they boys in black and gold. Talks of inconsistent quarterback play, talks of not enough playmakers, talks of not being able to match the best in the East...all of the excuses are racking up. Saturday Down South has already said Derek Mason is a coach who could be fired; but does he deserve it?
I won't say I am the smartest man alive (though sometimes my arrogance says otherwise). I do believe Rome was not built in a day, and what James Franklin did for this program was instill confidence. What Derek Mason is doing is instilling fundamentals. I direct you to SEC East foe Missouri, perched at the top of the podium, yet when the recruiting rankings come out they fail to rank in the Top 25. So what happened? They had a plan, a blue print if you will. What I can say about Coach Franklin, as much as I admire and respect him, is that his plan was to grab the best recruits based off star rankings. Not a bad plan, sooner or later one is bound to hit right?
But what Derek Mason is doing is great for this program and is something that isn't exactly seen through the eyes of many. He's finding guys that have traits he looks for in football players and he's building them up, as a certain other coach in Knoxville would say "brick by brick". They aren't the sexy recruits, and they don't have to be. Jordan Matthews, Mr. Two Star himself, is a fantastic route runner and knows how to get open. That's all you need sometimes in a receiver, he works his tail off and he finds a way to get open. A guy who graduated from the high school I work at now, Doug Baldwin, is also a master at getting open. He wasn't recruited out of high school very hard but he went to Stanford and now he's excelling in the NFL for the Seahawks.
I said earlier this week Vanderbilt isn't Stanford. You're not bringing a tough brand of football into a conference known for it's high octane offenses, you're bringing a tough brand of football into a conference known for it. But there is one thing I didn't take into consideration, and something I haven't taken into consideration since the offseason began. The Dores were growing game by game. You see it when Nigel Bowden fills the hole on a pulling guard, when the week before he followed the quarterbacks' fake. You see it when Dallas Rivers no longer tip toes on the line, but runs behind his pads and levels someone. The boys in Nashville are slowly becoming fundamentally sound, and they're doing things the way Coach Mason wants them done.
"And we will be champions, just so you know."
You listen to that phrase now and some people laugh, but the blueprint is working. Piece by piece, Coach Mason is doing what Coach Harbaugh did, what Coach Pinkel did, and what Coach Bielema is doing. They didn't target the sexiest guys, they targeted the guys who do what they wanted them to do on the field. A prime example is Caleb Peart, a player who I think could be better than Josh Sweat, the defensive end who was the best player in the country.
"Okay, football coach or not this guy is off his rocker."
Give it some serious thought and let's take a look at the tale of the tape.
This is Josh Sweat's skills, according to 247 Sports Recruiting.
And this is Caleb Pearts' skills according to 247 Sports recruiting.
Tell me what you notice. The first thing I notice is, despite the size and the frame disadvantage, Peart makes up for it in the form of hand quickness, point of attack, and other skills. In fact you could argue his closing speed, pursuit/speed, and first step are comparable. The only thing he lacks is size...but he's still 6 ft 0, he's still 240 lbs (or 230 if you believe VU.com) and he's the perfect size for a pass rushing linebacker. His athletic ability isn't the sexiest thing in the world, but what is sexy is the fact he's better at shedding the block than his counterpart. I don't know about you but if I'm building a defense I would rather have a kid who can get off blocks and make tackles over just being super big and athletic. He's fundamentally strong as a football player.
Okay...so we did that for one player, but what about the rest of our recruiting class that was overlooked?
Soso Jamabo was a kid out of Texas who went to UCLA, how does he stack up against one of my favorite backs Josh Crawford?
This is Soso Jamabo, again from 247 Sports.
This is Josh Crawford, again from the same spot.
This one is a bit more telling. You're not going to confuse Crawford with a top tier recruited back, but you might confuse him with former Vanderbilt standout Zac Stacy. The first thing I noticed was Crawford had better vision, something you can't teach...you either have it or you don't. Power, Tackle Breaking, Explosiveness, Change of Direction...that's all speed and agility. I'm not exactly sure if I agree with the speed because Crawford himself lettered in track and field while in high school. Do I think Crawford will have a better career than Soso? Maybe. Soso recently found himself in some legal trouble, where as Crawford himself was a Sunday School Minister. That's the character that Coach Mason was talking about. So even while his feet, change of direction, speed, explosiveness and the such isn't up to where Soso Jamabo was he is staying out of trouble AND he has better vision. Might he be redshirted to spend a year growing and getting bigger, faster, stronger? Perhaps, but he as a player right now is pretty solid. But what about Jaire George? While I don't have his skills on tap he was recruited by Stanford and Ohio State, yet chose Vanderbilt. I'd think his power might be better than Soso's though I don't know about everything else.
The point I am trying to make at this moment is that, to the fans, to the people at Saturday Down South, and to the average eye Derek Mason is failing. But to us, he's finding the gem recruits. The guys who are comparable to guys who couldn't make it into Vanderbilt. I remember last year picking up Lindy's Magazine and they said Coach Mason was a mix between Bobby Johnson and James Franklin. He has kept some energy in this program but he's brought back the integrity that might have been lost during the dismissal of certain players. He's gotten a group of coaches and he's started working fundamentals hard, so his team is sound when they may not be the "sexiest" athletic team.
So what is a realistic and reasonable season for Vanderbilt? I think my bowl bound statement stands. While Vanderbilt has went through some tough times the rushing attack is stout, the defense looks like it might be returning to prominence again, and while we haven't figured out the entire passing game yet we have figured out that we have an All-SEC Tight End and several receivers who can contend for the shot at being the guy. Or maybe it'll be a group effort who carries the passing game through. I think our quarterbacks will be better (they almost have to be), and I wouldn't be surprised if we heard about any of them starting for us. One has a NFL pedigree, one has a NFL Coach who he grew up with, and the other two were highly touted coming out of high school...one of which came from a major program in South Florida.
Are we a 9 win team at the moment? Probably not (Coaching 101, never say never). But we're a young team with only 9 seniors suiting up in the fall. That means we're going to grow a lot this year, much like last year. By the time these kids are juniors and seniors, we will have been sharpened by the blade that is the SEC. Coach Mason is building us up, he is going to the store and buying the groceries he needs to make us contend in the SEC East. He's currently in the kitchen cooking these ingredients, and following his recipe that he knows works.
I say we give him a little patience, let him show us how he's doing things, let him show us his way will work. Need us not forget just two years ago Arkansas had a highly energetic and big profiled coach let go, they brought in their guy and it was a hard first year where they went 3-9. Last year the followed it up with 7-6. They were, and are recruiting about the same way we are so don't think it's impossible.
Coach Mason, you have my faith, you have my support, and I stand with you. (Also if you read this, I would love a job)