Nashville–Vanderbilt was coming off an open date when it visited Mississippi State on Nov. 22, 2014, The Commodores didn’t just get beat–they were humiliated 51-0 by the nation’s No. 4 team. And no one was humiliated more than Derek Mason, the first-year head coach.
At that moment Mason had to admit something that no coach likes to admit: His team was not very well coached.
“Defensively there was an inability to get lined up and the inability to get off the field,” said the former defensive coordinator from Stanford. “It wasn’t what we were playing it was how we were playing. We didn’t compete and when you don’t compete that’s a coaching thing. And that was an indictment on me.”
After going to three straight bowl games and posting back-to-back nine-win seasons under James Franklin, (who left for Penn State), Vanderbilt fans hoped for a continuation of that success under Mason, the defensive mastermind of Stanford’s recent run of success.
But the 2014 season at Vanderbilt was, to be candid, a disaster. Vanderbilt lost Mason’s first game against Temple (37-7) and not much went right after that. The offense went through four quarterbacks and looked totally disjointed. In eight SEC games Vanderbilt scored only 102 points (12.75 avg.) and scored more than 14 only twice.
In one game quarterback Stephen Rivers read the play wrong off of his wristband (the play was “60” but Rivers read it upside down and said “90”). Georgia turned into an interception for a touchdown.
In the Mississippi State game the Commodores were down 37-0 at halftime. Bulldogs’ coach Dan Mullen mercifully took his foot off the gas in the second half. The following week Mason basically took over the defense and exerted more control over the offense and the Commodores had a respectable 24-17 loss to Tennessee to finish 3-9 (0-8 SEC). But Mason knew after the Mississippi State that things were going to have to change and that change would have to be dramatic.
One of the realities for Mason is that he did not get the Vanderbilt job until Jan. 17, 2014, only a couple of weeks away from National Signing Day. When it came to hiring a staff his options were limited. Mason knew he had to fix that and started by firing offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kotulski, Dorrell is a close friend. Kotulski was Mason’s linebackers coach at Stanford.
“I had to make changes,” said Mason. “It felt like the kids had lost belief in who we were.”
Dorrell was replaced by Andy Ludwig, who had been the offensive coordinator for the past two seasons at Wisconsin. In 2014 the Badgers averaged 468.9 yards and 34.56 points per game. Ludwig, who has worked with quarterbacks like Fresno State’s David Carr, Oregon’s Kellen Clemmens, and Utah’s Brian Johnson, was brought in to bring some stability to a unit that was all over the place last season.
“I knew we had a lot of work to do here. Coach Mason didn’t really need to tell me that,” said Ludwig who has been an offensive coordinator at eight different schools over the past 20 years. “We are young but when you’re young there is the opportunity for growth. I am looking forward to the opportunity to coach and compete in the SEC.”
Mason surprised a lot of people with his decision to become his own defensive coordinator.
His rationale? Simple. Anybody he brought in was going to face a learning curve when it came to Mason’s defensive expectations. So he decided to cut out the middle man.
“A lot of names popped up (for the job) but the more I talked to guys the more I realized that I was going to have to talk through somebody to get to the defense,” said Mason. “I know what I want the defense to look like. I know how I want it to be structured. I want this defense to be a reflection of me.”
What he’s doing is not all that radical, said Mason.
“Other (head) coaches do this. Coach (Paul) Johnson does it at Georgia Tech. Gary Patterson does it at TCU. When you look at the Texas A&M offense you know that (head coach) Kevin Sumlin is deeply involved in the game plan,” said Mason. “I know I can do it. It is simply a matter of organizing your time.”
The next thing to change was the hiring of James Dobson as Vanderbilt’s new strength and conditioning coach. Dobson had held the same position at Nebraska the past seven seasons and became available when head coach Bo Pelini was dismissed. Pelini is now at Youngstown State.
“James Dobson reflects me just like Andy Ludwig reflects me,” said Mason.
Finally, Mason made the decision to start spring practice on Feb. 16 to put the 2014 season in Vanderbilt’s rear-view mirror as soon as possible.
“I thought it was a great idea,” said quarterback Johnny McCrary. “We knew we had to learn Coach Ludwig’s offense. We knew we were ready to forget last year and start looking ahead to next season.”
Coming out of the spring the biggest question, among many questions, about Vanderbilt is who will start at quarterback? McCrary started the final four games last season. Patton Robinette started two games but didn’t finish either one because of injury. True freshman Wade Freebeck was thrown into the fire with a start in the third game against UMass. He would go on to start four games. Rivers, who graduated from LSU and enrolled last summer, was simply ineffective and ultimately left the program.
Since the end of spring practice Robinette, the redshirt junior from Maryville, Tenn., has given up football due to a series of injuries and the opportunity to enter Vanderbilt’s medical school this summer.
So that leaves Vanderbilt with three quarterbacks: McCrary, Freebeck, and redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage, the son of former North Carolina quarterback Scott Stankavage and former Olympic swimmer Sue Walsh..
Ludwig said the plan is to get the quarterback race down to two in preseason camp and let the competition play itself out. All bring something different to the table.
“Johnny has great passion for the game. He has the ability to create things,” said Ludwig. “Wade has a great skill set but he wasn’t ready for prime time when he was thrown into the ball game. Shawn is a pretty dynamic athlete. He’s a true dual threat.”
But understand this. Mason has made it clear that he wants Vanderbilt to be able to run the football. And that means the offense will be built around Ralph Webb, who had 907 yards rushing last season as a redshirt freshman. Only two other freshmen–Georgia’s Nick Chubb and LSU’s Leonard Fournette–had more yards than Webb.
Last season at Wisconsin Ludwig had Melvin Gordon, a Heisman Trophy finalist. He knows what a great tailback can mean to an offense.
“We like to drive the ball and we have a guy who can drive it in Ralph,” said Ludwig. “He fits right in. Now we are trying to find a second and third tailback.”
And while not much can be made of a spring game, it is worth noting that the No. 1 Vanderbilt defense, now being run by Mason, had five interceptions and seven quarterback sacks during the scrimmage on March 21.
Now are any of these changes going to get Vanderbilt out of the cellar in the SEC East?
Probably not. But this much we learned on our trip to Vanderbilt. This year at Derek Mason is going to pretty much ditch his CEO hat–at least during practice and games–and coach his football team hands on and with some passion.
“When you turn on the film at any place I’ve ever coached our guys played hard,” said Mason. “Listen, I own every bit of us being 3-9. But after the season I knew I needed to be certain that Vanderbilt football never looks that way again. It just can’t happen. Not on my watch.”
COMING FRIDAY: SEC PROJECTIONS FOR 2015