The SEC made us wait until the fourth and final day of SEC Media Days. Derek Mason, however, was not interested in their delay tactics. The Vanderbilt head coach was hard at work yesterday. He descended on radio row and was making his message heard. According to the SEC Network, with input from radio row veterans, no coach had done that since Tommy Tuberville at Auburn. No year was given, but it was at least 11 years ago. The confidence and comfort level to put yourself in front of extra media, recognizing that they might be less energetic in bringing a coach on while wrapping up their final day in Hoover, tells me Derek Mason is highly confident in both his team, his message, and his ability to represent both.
Then Coach Mason took the podium and started talking. His assuredness could not have been more obvious. He stopped short of the “compete for the SEC East” declaration of year one, but they were the most aggressive remarks since 2014. In fact, even with the losses of Kyle Shurmur, Joejuan Williams, and 8 other starters between the offense and defense, Mason said it is the “deepest squad I’ve had in my six years at Vanderbilt.” The depth was attributed heavily to going into year six but also to the massive class of transfers, most of them of the graduate variety. Of note, LaShawn Paulino-Bell, a JUCO transfer, who was expected to play defensive end was mentioned as an outsider linebacker. Vanderbilt’s roster has him listed as an outside linebacker, also. He is the only player with that designation with everyone else in that group simply listed as a linebacker. Based upon his height and weight, it seems Paulino-Bell will have a similar role to former Commodore and current Minnesota Viking Stephen Weatherly where he is primarily a big, intimidating edge rusher. The statements were not just about depth though.
Most coaches shy away from discussing their position battles particularly when the battle is for the quarterback position. The Commodore head man addressed it squarely in his opening statements. He acknowledged it was down to Deuce Wallace and Riley Neal but likely would stretch into the middle portions of fall camp. About each QB, Mason said Wallace is a “skilled athlete who is very familiar with our offense and the weapons around him,” while touting Neal’s past, having “started 32 games at Ball State where he completed 60% of his throws for 7,400 yards.” Then dropping a line that might annoy Kyle Shurmur, HCDM stated, “The fact is, with Mo Hasan and Allan Walters, there is more talent in the quarterback room today than at any other time in my tenure as head coach.” Before anyone panics, re-read that slowly. Our coach is not saying any of them are better than Shurmur, just that the combined talent of the group is better than we have had during his time here. Only one of them can play at a time (Please, do not test this as a normal strategy new OC Gerry Gdowski.), but talent around the room will challenge each of them to improve for a chance at playing this and/or next season.
Coach Mason ended his opening remarks by challenging the men who battle in the trenches. Having focused so heavily on the ability of the skill positions, HCDM declared, “Our team success will be determined by the performance of our offensive and defensive fronts. I believe we are better on both sides of the ball. But it is time for the offensive line, defensive line, and linebacking corps to help carry this ball club in 2019.” The tone and delivery were not negative. Coach was not disrespecting the offensive line or front seven. He was giving them responsibility. Mason followed by opening the floor to the gathered media members.
The succinct opening remarks left a lot of time for questions. None of you all want to read about every question, but some notable comments were made. The questions were surprisingly thought out, too. It was very amusing to hear Mason tell Jimmy Hyams from Knoxville that beating UT repeatedly is just a step in the road to relevance in the SEC East. Then after talking about the great relationship with Vaughn and how excited he was to have Tim Horton as his position coach along with calling Daevion Davis “a big-time player who will play in 2019,” the football coach had to field a question about the Vandy Whistler. Mason dropped the bomb that the Whistler is “annoying to y’all but, to us at Vanderbilt there on West End, he’s the man.” Maybe VandyTigerPhD will get his wish for the Whistler to get time on the big screen to help lead football cheers.
One interesting comment came from Mason acknowledging his own repeated rhetoric about building depth each year. There was no backing down or backpedaling. Mason simply said it was the truth. He claimed that building something on West End was not an overnight process, but it was one that had been on a constant positive trend. Whether sparked by this self-evaluation or not, the next question was about whether the length of his tenure was an advantage, both on the field and on the recruiting trail. HCDM admitted it is a big advantage but added a caveat. He argued that the tenure was more representative of the positive steps that match the university’s mission and are the reason for the improving results, making it a more circular situation where good results create a longer tenure which helps with better results.
In a couple of different questions aimed at the transfer portal, Mason put out some opinions that could make him popular with recruits. He posited that it is best for college football that a “student-athlete trying to find the right fit,” is allowed to do so. The coaching union may not like it, but he even used the term “free agency” in a positive light. The specific challenge of using the transfer portal at Vanderbilt also came up. Academic restrictions were identified as the reason most transfers were graduates. In that vein, Mason also addressed that he does not worry about waiver eligibility when adding transfer players. The defensive-minded coach just wants to get the best players into the fold that he can.
In terms of defending our turf, Commodore Nation’s turnout for the opener was brought directly into question by a Georgia reporter. The coach stepped to the plate for the fans. Citing Malcom Turner’s advertising campaigns, the Commodore head coach said that home field would be defended with Vandy fans showing up to support their team even in the face of the strong Georgia support.
Derek Mason’s role as a defensive play caller was also brought up by a reporter. The idea was tactfully denied. Vanderbilt’s head coach pointed out he was hired as Vanderbilt’s head coach, not defensive coordinator. He expounded that the decision to take the DC role was out of necessity and part of his maturation from DC to HC. His involvement in the defense has been even less this spring and summer as Tarver has gotten the full grasp on the players at his disposal along with the nuances of the college schedule. Mason put on the bow on his decision with the idea it is “hard to grow when you stay on one side of the ball.”
The final two questions turned to two of the three prolific offensive weapons. First, a reporter wanted to know what Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s best attribute is. Mason answered that the “biggest thing you see about Ke’Shawn when he touches the ball, he’s hard to tackle. He’s dynamic.” Amusingly, the coach mentioned not caring what the speed is before throwing out 4.36 and 4.39 as possible 40-yard dash times. Whether Vaughn is THAT fast is unknown, but those numbers being at all believable based on tape tells you all you need to know. The Red Mamba has speed to kill. For those of us who questioned the Pearl Cohn product’s pass protection, Mason asserted the biggest area of improvement under Horton’s tutelage has been in Vaughn’s play without the ball in his hands. The coach who has earned the nickname “Swaggy D” really missed a chance to talk about Vaughn’s suit game though.
Finally, the seeming miracle of convincing Jared Pinkney to make the NFL wait another year was discussed. The question asked if the tight end was the “most surprising” returnee. The head Commodore tried to downplay it by saying all three were surprises before conceding Pinkney was the biggest shock. Some details from the coach-athlete meeting were revealed, namely that Mason told his player he would be a 1st or 2nd round pick in his opinion, so he understood whatever decision the player made. Then Mason attributed a big part of Jared’s decision to a host of defensive players including Dmitri Moore and Dayo Odeyingbo stepping up to tell their teammate how much they appreciate his leadership. Reading between the lines, the assumption can be made that the defenders were telling the offensive players that the weapons returning along with promised defensive growth would give everyone a chance to really make a mark on Commodore football history. That conversation happened with all three of Vaughn, Lipscomb, and Pinkney. Those insights into the inner workings of the team were a strong finish to Mason’s comments on the main stage.
He was not quite done as he moved to the SEC Now set for a few final comments. It seemed like a fairly innocuous conversation with McElroy, Chizik, and Alyssa Lang with typical comments like loving the senior leadership by his Media Days attendees. Two statements should get some attention though. Mason said he would give up a day of his schedule or vacation at any time to put the spotlight on his players. The proof of showing up to Media Days a day early gives that statement some credence that a recruit might appreciate. If not recruits, we as fans should be happy that Mason is willing to put in the work to sell Vanderbilt football. The job of salesman was one James Franklin filled eagerly and effectively. Mason has been less vocal since putting his foot in his mouth in 2014, which may have to do with the difference in success had by both coaches, so the change should be appreciated. Mason also raised expectations by saying, “Bowl games are where we wanna be. Winning bowl games is where we need to be.” For all the positives out of this talkin’ season, Derek Mason needs to have an equally positive football season.