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Vanderbilt’s new coordinator hires will tell us a lot

Is this real change or just window-dressing?

East Tennessee State v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The schemes are good schemes. I think we’ve got good players, and we’ve got good coaches.

That was Derek Mason on October 15, three days removed from a 34-10 pantsing by UNLV, a Mountain West team on its way to a 4-8 season and a coaching change. There’s really no point in rehashing the debate (which wasn’t really much of a debate) about whether Derek Mason himself should have been retained. At this point, it is what it is, and Derek Mason will be the team’s coach for 2020 at the very least, regardless of whether we believe he should be or not. But if Mason had to be retained (and apparently he did), at the very least we’re going to get Mason with different coordinators rather than the same “This Is Fine” dog that graced us with his presence at press conferences throughout 2019.

At least while it was going on, Mason didn’t really seem to have much of an answer for an obvious failure of a season, one in which an offense featuring Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb, and Jared Pinkney finished 125th of 130 FBS teams in scoring offense thanks mostly to inept quarterback play (and, to a lesser extent, an inexperienced and overmatched offensive line), and the once-vaunted defense surrendered an average of 34.6 ppg against FBS competition. But Saturday’s move to get rid of both offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver (and additional reports suggest that offensive line coach Cameron Norcross is on his way out as well) suggests that either Mason didn’t actually believe the coaches and schemes were good, or that the latter half of the season changed his mind. Now, some have suggested that this might have been the result of an ultimatum from AD Malcolm Turner (they go or you go), but the timing suggests that this was likely Mason’s decision — a staff change dictated by the AD likely would have come out in the days after the end of the regular season instead of waiting until after signing day.

Now, some have fretted that Vanderbilt will have a difficult time finding new coordinators for what’s obviously (not obviously, but let’s build the argument here) a lame-duck season. But that kind of misses the fact that aside from the handful of top-shelf coordinators who have little to no desire to be a head coach (looking at you, Brent Venables and Dave Aranda), there are few assistant coaches who are looking for a long-term gig. The attractiveness of a job may not be the chance to stay in that job for a decade, but simply an opportunity to burnish your resume for the inevitable next job.

I kind of glossed over it at the time, but Chris Lee mentioned after Gerry Gdowski was promoted to offensive coordinator that a lot of other coaches had shied away from the job, figuring that there would be too much pressure thanks to the return of the Big Three. (The unspoken part was that the losses of Kyle Shurmur, Justin Skule, and Bruno Reagan would make it next to impossible to live up to expectations, something that we should have seen then and is painfully obvious now.) But entering 2020, there are basically no expectations on the offensive side of the ball: an offense that was already bad loses the Big Three, and also the starting quarterback (for whatever that was worth.) That would seem to make it a low-risk situation for a new offensive coordinator: as long as the offense isn’t Dowhower levels of abysmal, nobody is going to blame the coordinator if it stinks, and if the offense is even decent that will be a nice bullet point on the coordinator’s resume.

But there’s axing the coordinators to make it look like you’re fixing things (while actually changing nothing), and then there’s making a coordinator change to effect a shift in the direction of the program. When a business is struggling, sometimes the problems really are as simple as management, but sometimes the problem is the business itself. There was Apple during Steve Jobs’ shareholder-imposed banishment from the company, and there was Blockbuster’s storefront video-rental empire competing with Redbox and Netflix. One just needed to bring back Steve Jobs; the other had a fundamental flaw that was never fixed.

Which brings us to the defense. Who Derek Mason hires as his offensive coordinator will tell us something, but on that side of the ball, the problem may very well have been one of sheer management. It’s hard to say that there was something fundamentally wrong with Vanderbilt’s offensive philosophy in 2019, because it didn’t appear to have one. The defense is another matter.

When Derek Mason brought in Jason Tarver to take over defensive playcalling duties after the 2017 season, the message was abundantly clear that this was still going to be Derek Mason’s defense even if Derek Mason was delegating playcalling duties to his good friend Tarver. That defense, by the way, went from allowing 21 ppg and 350.6 yards per game in 2015, to 24 and 408.2 in 2016, to 31.3 and 394.3 in 2017, to 26.6 and 438.9 in 2018, to 31.8 and 437 in 2019. Granted, some of that is simply a fact of life in a world of exploding offensive numbers all around, but it’s hard not to see the slide. Of course, Mason also had Zach Cunningham and Adam Butler in the front seven in 2015 and 2016, and has not had anybody in the front seven approaching those two since.

I’m not going to pretend to explain to you why Vanderbilt should be playing a 4-3 instead of a 3-4 defense, because I don’t actually know that this is true, and even if I did think it were true I probably don’t know enough to explain why. Just know that a lot of people think this is true. What I do know, though, is that there have been some complaints that the defensive scheme is too complicated. And that probably shouldn’t be a major surprise considering that most of Tarver’s coaching history, and quite a bit of Mason’s, came in the NFL.

Often, when coaches move from the NFL to college, they find that complicated schemes don’t work as well when they’re limited by NCAA rules to 20 hours a week. Professional players who play football as a full-time job have time to learn complex schemes; college players really don’t. The most prominent example of this has been any NFL offensive coach who’s a disciple of the West Coast offense (hi, Rod Dowhower), the uber-complicated offense that worked well for a long time in the NFL and was always a miserable failure at the college level.

Whether Derek Mason really intends to change anything about the football program should be fairly obvious once we know who the new defensive coordinator will be. If it’s another coach who’s married to the 3-4, or one who’s spent a lot of time in the NFL, that’s probably a good indication that this is all just window-dressing, and 2020 will just be more of the same.