We're only two days from the official start of Derek Mason's second year in Nashville, but if the Vanderbilt head coach is nervous he certainly didn't show it on Tuesday. Mason was confident when he dealt with questions from the press, brushing off concerns from 2014 and showcasing the team's strengths as their season opener against Western Kentucky looms.
Mason was quick to point out that no one on campus was overlooking the Hilltoppers. He was effusive in his praise of WKU in his opening statement:
We get a chance to test our mettle Thursday night versus Western Kentucky, who is an extremely good football team. They've got a great quarterback in Doughty, who was the C-USA Player of the Year. He is extremely good at what he does, and they're talented across the board. This is a statement game for both teams and I definitely look forward to the challenge of making a statement versus this football team.
He returned to that sentiment when discussing Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty at the end of his conference, even comparing Thursday's foe to NFL Pro Bowler Andrew Luck:
He does everything you want a sixth year quarterback to do. He can manage the game, he can throw the ball down the field, he's good in tight windows, he can make the intermediate throws; but more than that he can extend plays. I had the chance to see a guy like Andrew Luck extend plays daily. Doughty has done a terrific job of being able to push his turnover ratio down and push the point production up...that makes you a really good quarterback.
Unsurprisingly, one of the first questions from the media settled on the team's quarterback play. Mason pointed to the presence of new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig as a major positive force for the Commodores.
Under the direction of Andy Ludwig, I've seen tremendous change. Just in terms of their character, their demeanor, how they lead, what we do, how they practice. It's just been a different flavor, a different air about this team. They're confident...Now it's time to see how we've grown.
When he was pressed to reveal his starter, Mason kept mum.
Quarterback will not be addressed. You'll see it Thursday night. At 7:01, be ready.
I've got two quarterbacks that are more than capable of playing. But here's the deal, I've got a starter and a backup. My idea is to take the pressure off these guys and let's go play the game. It's about what puts these guys in the best situation to play well. The task at hand is not who's the starter - the task at hand is who is going to win.
We knew probably about a week and a half ago [who Thursday's starter will be].
Mason also clarified the team's coaching structure now that he's also handling defensive coordinator duties. While he'll be more hands on when it comes to calling plays and substituting defenders, he'll also be in full control of aspects like calling timeouts, issuing replay challenges, and deciding between extra points and two-point conversions.
The structure on the sidelines is going to look more like me being defensive coordinator...when our defense is on the field. But I'm head coach 99.999% to infinity - all the time...My eyes are always going to be on the game. That's on me.
The head coach clarified that the new distribution of roles is something that he learned after a rough first year on the Vanderbilt sideline. He repeated several times that while the 2014 season is something that this team can learn from, it's not something that will matter on Thursday night. He asked the media to move on from last season after three questions about last year's performance.
When the press prodded him about the team's true freshmen, Mason took a moment to poke fun at himself before answer the question.
As many [true freshmen] as we can play (laughs). Nah. I look at it and say that you may see between eight and nine...When the opportunity presents itself they'll get a chance to step on the field and play.
He also tossed out some tremendous SEC head coach colloquialisms when discussing backup left tackle Justin Skule:
You know, when a young guy doesn't spit the bit, and he bites as a young pup, he'll bite as a big dog. So, I can't wait to see him grow up.
I'm not sure what that means, but I am definitely more excited for the Skule era now than I was yesterday.
Here's Mason's press conference in full, courtesy of VUCommodores.com: