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July 19, 2018
DEREK MASON: Good morning. For me, it's great to be in front of this group of distinguished media personnel to be able to talk all things Vanderbilt football.
As I take a look at, you know, our team, and where we are, as soon as we finish the season, from December until now, it's been about the grind. It's been about that work to really get this program exactly where we want to be. We encountered some early success in 2017. We got off to a fast start. We struggled in the middle as we got into conference play. Disappointed with how we played in the middle of that stretch of games, but I believe this, I believe you learn a lot about your team. And I thought we finished the right way.
And so, in that, this team is now experienced. It was galvanized by that experience a year ago. The fast start, the struggle in the middle and then the finish, I think that really propelled this group because they haven't forgotten any of that. As a matter of fact, I know we went into the season with unmet, unkept expectations.
And on the other side of that, what we realize is that we got work to do. So December until now has been about that grind. We continue to build this program in key areas such as recruiting, staff enhancement, strength and conditioning. I truly believe that in our program, the staff enhancements made over the last six months are going to take us from where we are to where we want to be. I look at the seamless transition of our new staff.
I believe that in that -- in those staff transitions, I've been able to provide continuity of scheme and philosophy, and that's important. Young men need the opportunity to have success. And I believe the coaches and the team culture I have been able to provide over the last six months has been incredible.
It's given this team confidence. For Commodore Nation, I believe the best is yet to come. So we got to get ready to strap it up. Starts in August. And I'm ready to go. I hope my team is too. I know they are.
Factors for improvement in 2018 are as follows: I truly believe Kyle Shurmur is one of the most improved quarterbacks and one of the most dynamic passers in this conference that people are not talking about. That's okay. I don't need people to talk about Kyle Shurmur. I know and I understand his pedigree, and I have seen his development of when he was a freshman and where he is now.
I've seen him with weapons, without weapons, with an offensive line, and without an offensive line. His growth and maturity is really beyond his years. He believes in this team. This team believes in him. And in this conference, it all starts with the quarterback position. If the quarterback can play well, you got a chance for success.
I also believe that now having an experienced offensive line. For the first time in my tenure as head coach, we have 12 offensive linemen upfront that can play for us. It's anchored by Justin Skule, Bruno Reagan, Egidio DellaRipa, Saige Young, Devin Cochran. And those guys behind those guys are guys that have experience in this conference now.
For me to have the offensive line back intact means that we can keep our quarterback upright. We can run the football, and that's important. It doesn't matter who is at running back. You have to have an offensive line to be able to make sure you can control the line of scrimmage in this conference.
Looking at where we are at running back depth, tight end depth and skill position depth, all of the way on the offensive side of the ball, I truly feel like this program has been in a place that it hasn't been before in my tenure. Obviously, watching Vanderbilt play before I got there, maybe you saw the depth, the ability of guys like Jordan Matthews and what they brought to the games. Zac Stacy, what he brought to the game, I thought those guys were great catalysts, Casey Hayward, great catalysts for Vanderbilt football.
Now I look at our depth and say it's as good as it's ever been. Everybody been watching what's on the surface of our program, I believe what's come behind these seniors and what happened to our recruiting classes really propelled this group. Guys like Jared Pinkney had to grow up in front of the camera a little bit. Sam Dobbs who has had to grow up a little bit at tight end. Those guys are key targets for quarterback in 2018.
You talk about the receiver position, I think a guy who has been overlooked is Kalija Lipscomb. You look at his ability to play, he's probably second in this conference in plus 20 yard receptions. He's explosive and able to do it against everybody that we have been able to play, and he showed up. From the time he stepped on the campus to now, he's a big-time player. Some young guys are going to have to play alongside him. I believe we're bigger. We're faster. We're stronger. And we're more athletic in the offensive skill positions.
I love the additions of this staff. I'm going to talk quickly about staff additions starting with
Aaron Moorehead. He comes from Texas A&M. He was at Virginia Tech before A&M. Before that, he was Stanford University where Aaron and I had a chance to be acquainted with one another. He understands me. He developed guys like guys like Doug Baldwin, Ty Montgomery, Christian Kirk, and now he gets to work with Kalija Lipscomb and a host of young talent. And I believe that that transition is as seamless as it gets.
Terrence Brown comes from the University of Washington where he worked with corners at the University of Washington over the last couple of years and had tremendous success, but Terrence played for me at Stanford. He's been in this system. He's played with in system. And he understands it. And our corners are benefitting right away.
I take a look at what I've been able to do with the defensive coordinator. And I'm happy to relinquish the title of defensive coordinator. For me, it's important to get the right guy. It has been almost three years in the making, two years in the chase, but I finally got my guy, Jason Tarver, who came from the San Francisco 49ers, was with me at Stanford, same pedigree. We're the same guy, probably grew up in the same household. We just look a little different.
With that being said, his energy, his passion, his attention to detail, his coaching style very similar to mine, but I believe his football I.Q. and what he's been able to do over the last four months in terms of solidifying our defense has been the mastery that's Jason Tarver. I'm excited about that. I'm excited about me getting back to the responsibilities of being head coach, CEO of a program.
And if you want to know what that looks like, step right outside and you look at the billboard of Kyle Shurmur and that tells you exactly where we're at. I'm CEO. I am looking at everything that's Vanderbilt football and putting the right guy out front to showcase our program.
Moving forward, I look at our defensive side of the ball quickly, and I look at the extensive depth finally up front. I've got nine 300-pounders up front. For the first time in my tenure, I got guys that can play up front. I got four rotation in a three-man front that I can wave through, and that's important.
Like I said, while everybody has been watching what is on the surface everything, the only thing we lacked is quality depth. And for the first time in my tenure, I have it. I'm talking about guys Dare and Dayo Odeyingbo. I'm talking about Louis Vecchio. I am talking about Cameron Tidd. These guys are going to be key guys for us in 2018. It starts up front. It's a line-of-scrimmage conference. I'm proud to have the depth, quality depth we need.
Outside backer, everybody knows what Charles Wright can do and what he's done. I think it's important that
Josh Smith who is now a senior, once a big-time recruit coming out of high school, it's his time. He's played football for us. And now it's his time to play alongside Charles. And as he plays well, Charles will play better. So I'm excited about that.
Nobody's talking about Joejuan Williams, and that's okay. Nobody is talking about LaDarius Wiley, that's okay. Joejuan Williams, when you look at the second of half of the season, he shut down some big-time receivers and played well. He's probably the best corner that I've coached outside of Richard Sherman. He's right along those lines. Again when you're 6'3", extremely athletic and can cover, it means something.
Biggest thing he has to do in 2018 is touch some footballs. Now when you move away man coverage and mix up our coverages a little more, his eyes will be able to make him right. I'm excited about what he can do. LaDarius Wiley has probably as many tackles as anybody in this conference at the safety position, and has played as much football, but nobody is really talking about him, but I am. This dude's a monster. He's here today in probably the best-dressed suit here for
SEC Media Day. He came in here and out dressed me, and I'm all about it. So LaDarius, captain's up.
As I close out, our special teams unit is going to be anchored by Shawn Mennega. Shawn has extensive NFL and college experience. I'm glad he's here. He's going to solidify exactly what we do. And as I've been able to get away from defensive play calling and get to the idea of what it takes to be a head coach, we spend a lot of time together. So that's great. We were able to attract a grad transfer putter, Parker Thome, who comes from Columbia University where he was outstanding in the Ivy Leagues. Now he looks to bring his talents to the SEC. And so we look for great things out of him.
As I close this thing, what I'll say is the recruiting has been something that's going under the radar, but I truly believe this last class solidifies exactly what we want to do. For us, they're talented. They're athletic. They're long. They're explosive, the best recruiting class I've had since I've been here. And I believe this class is really going to provide the quality depth because when you look at this conference, this conference is about not what your ones can do. It's about what your twos and threes have to do.
For us, the depth is there. The athleticism is there. The leadership is there. I believe it's our time. We got to close the gap. We didn't finish the way we wanted to, so there's unkept expectations about where we are. But here is the deal, you don't get a chance to fix that, okay, or change the record from a year ago. But what you do get a chance to do is make it right. It's not about being right. It's about getting it right.
In these last six months, it's about getting it right. Every day is about that grind. For me right now, it's about relentless, tough and intelligent, and that hasn't changed. That's program philosophy. That is who we are and what we do.
But for you media out there, and there's been media out there that spoke to the idea that our game is one to be overlooked, watch out. I'm telling you right now, this team is going to show up. We're going to play well. We are going come out the blocks and play the way we need to, and we're going to finish this the way we should, the Vanderbilt way, Vanderbilt men salute.
With that being said, I'll turn it over for question.
Q. Can you talk about what went into the decision to relinquish the defensive coordinator role to Jason Tarver and was he your first choice?
DEREK MASON: For me, it was never meant to be long term. That process was about me going through the idea of looking at coaches, figuring out exactly who I can bring in. I really identified the target three years ago, but he was under contract. And that was Jason Tarver. There were only two guys in the country that I would have relinquished this defense to, one is at Stanford University, Lance Anderson, and the other is Jason Tarver.
It's taken me a minute to be able to get the guy I want, but the idea of getting it right was exactly what I needed to do. For me, I thought '15 went well. '16 went well. What you saw in '17 was something that sort of took on a life of its own. We started out well. We didn't play well. I take the full responsibility of how we played in the middle, but here's the deal, I got the guy. I'm back to being exactly what I want to be and need to be for my program. Now it is time to go, so let's ride.
Q. You referenced, and I did notice it, the billboard across the street as an example what it means for you to be CEO. Can you expound on that? What is that connection?
DEREK MASON: For me, it's about being able to see your program holistically. In a place like Vanderbilt, that's exact actually what you have to do. You have to be able to make sure you can forecast out, build your program the right way. And I truly believe we've done that through recruiting, through hiring the right staff. It's just taken a little time to get there.
I thought my chancellor, my A.D., those guys understood. They were patient. They understood my process. They understood exactly where we needed to go. Now sitting in the crow's nest and seeing exactly what needs to go on, whether it's staffing, resourcing, facilities, marketing, product management, it's all one and the same for me right now.
I feel as good as I've ever felt. I feel like I'm ready to sit right back in this position of being CEO, head coach, head coach only, and it's been fun. I'm having more fun now than I've had in the last four years. These last six months have been incredible. Now, like I said, it's time to go.
Q. The defensive line you referenced needed depth there. You have size there. You have a lot of bodies there.
DEREK MASON: Yeah.
Q. A lot of youth. There's a lot of sophomores in that bunch. What have you seen in practice and spring practice or weight room or anything that tells you that young depth will be able to step up more than the depth from last year?
DEREK MASON: Well, it was about dog days in spring. A lot of media don't come over to our campus to watch our practices. We're not covered as much as other teams, so people really don't get a chance to see who we are and what we do. I know, Adam, for you, you had the opportunity to come over and see who we are.
It was great to get Rutger Reitmaier back to Nashville. He went to the University of Oregon, and he came back. With that, along with guys like Josiah Sao, Darion DeBrossard, we were able to go back to dog days. Practices were tough. I had to go back to referencing one of my old defensive line coaches, the old defensive line coach at Stanford, and really spending some time with our d-line coach.
Talking about the tenacity, the nastiness, the relentlessness that you have to practice with in order to play well. It's got to be about competition. We've had more competition this spring. This team is different not just because I say it's so. It's different because this team is really player lead.
When we got between the lines, I truly believe that these guys, okay, these guys, whether it's Dare, whether it is Dayo, whether it is a guy like Charles Wright, these guys took the ownership. This will be the first time I've had a group of guys step up and not be about Coach Mason getting out front and having to make a speech or some type of announcement to how we play. The standard is theirs.
I think these guys have heard it enough. We practice hard. We made it extremely tough on these guys. And really, they've taken to it. If they were going to bite as a young pup, then they are going to bite as a big dog. Right now, some of these guys have grown from young pups to working their way to big dog status. So let's go.
Q. You're going to have a pretty early tough test early on with the trip to South Bend. How are you preparing your players for a trip to a location like that against a likely top-15 team?
DEREK MASON: Yeah. We play in the SEC. I don't worry about going to South Bend. Right now, I am worried about MTSU. I looked at how we started last year, and the blueprint is there.
If you want to be successful, stay in the moment. That's exactly what we're doing. We're staying in the moment. We're about Notre Dame when that game comes. Right now, it's about MTSU. It's about going to camp. It's about solidifying that depth. It's about making sure when we harden this team enough that when adversity comes, this team knows how to handle it.
Q. You're getting ready to go into your fifth year at Vande. I think that puts you fourth on the totum pole of being the longest tenured at your school at the SEC. What do you think about that and what do you think about six coaches being at new schools this season? That's a pretty big turnover.
DEREK MASON: Yeah. I think congratulations to those coaches who now are sitting in seats at schools. I know Dan left Mississippi State and went to Florida, but I congratulate all those guys. They are all deserving of it. And so that's great.
For me, being tenured, you know what, it's going fast. Again, I came into this really an unseasoned head coach who really had to take the helm of the program and figure out exactly where to go and what to do. For me, I truly believe time, adversity, a little bit of success and really management of a program has made me a better coach, a better man, a better person that stands before you.
With that being said, I'm excited about year five. I'm back where I started. I'm a head coach again, head coach only. So that's fun for me. That's exciting for me. I believe my vision now is much different than it was, you know, five years ago when I stepped into this program. So now I'm ready to coach. Our guys are ready to play. Like I said, it is senior led, not coach led when you get between the white lines, so let's ride.
Q. Not to drudge up a bad memory, but the week of the Alabama game, and the aftermath last year, can you describe just kind of the emotional highs and lows of that week and how much it took kind of the wind out of the sails of your team for a while?
DEREK MASON: Yeah. I think it goes back a little bit before that game. I think it was the physicality of the Kansas State game, if you want to be honest. When you talk about our roster, and where we're at, we don't look like most teams in the SEC. Okay? We don't have 135, 145 when school starts. We've got 103, 104.
So with that being said, we tried to manage the roster. I thought our guys played a hard-fought game versus Kansas State. That was great. You play against a good Alabama team that just beats the brakes off you, and that's okay. I mean, you learn a lot. I think for me as a head coach, being a defensive coordinator, I probably got in my feelings a little bit and thought my team needed to be harder, and we needed to work that team harder. We really didn't. A loss is a loss. You can't let one become two become three become four in this conference. And that's what I did. That is me being too much of a boots on the ground guy and not seeing it from a bird's eye view.
I feel like I cost our guys because we went into the season last year with high expectations. We started the right way. We let one become two become three become four. That's on me. Our guys got to play better. I got to do a better job coaching. That's why I stepped back from being coordinator. I'm head coach. I can see everything clearly now. I believe we do have more depth. And the idea of playing well is what is on these guys' minds. They are hardened. They got galvanized by that stretch of football. It's not necessarily how you start. It's not you how play the middle of the schedule. It's really how you finish. They finish the right way. And they have not forgotten the memory. You won't let them. I won't let them.
Q. You got a team on your schedule this year that they haven't played in many years in Arkansas. I wonder if you've crossed paths with Chad Morris at all in the years and if you've done any event scouting on Arkansas and what you've come across?
DEREK MASON: I've done some advanced scouting. I truly believe Chad coming from SMU, his offense is exciting to watch. Most coaches do summer scouts and get through exactly what they need to get through on teams they haven't seen before so they can gather that information before you get to the season so you have a pretty good idea coming into game week of exactly what you're getting into.
For me, I'll acquiesce to that game when it comes. I'm really not concerned with Arkansas and Coach Morris. I wish him well. I got to be more concerned about MTSU and starting fast and playing well game one and then moving to Nevada and moving towards Notre Dame. I'm staying in my lane right now, truly understand that, and that's where I need to be. Thank you.
Q. Coach, last year you had the SEC East champ won the conference title for the first time since 2008. What does that say, if anything, about the state of competitiveness in your division and have you seen a change or increase in your time at Vande?
DEREK MASON: As the West has always been powerful. I truly believe that the coaching, the level of players, level of play has risen all across the SEC. When you talk about the East, Will Muschamp has been able to solidify South Carolina. You look at what's happening in Florida with Dan Mullen, a proven winner. Look what's happening in Knoxville,
Jeremy Pruitt, he's a seasoned veteran. He's going to do a great job at the University of Tennessee.
I believe that all of these programs are rising, you know? These programs have good coaches. They have extremely good players. And right now, the SEC is moving exactly where people said it would be and where it would go.
I think every Saturday, it's about any given Saturday. You got to show up. You got to play big. We have had some highs and some lows in our program, but the idea of being able to compete across every program is everybody's standard. They want to play. They want to win. They want to have success. And right now, I think the SEC is really as strong as anybody else's conference talked about them.
Q. Ralph Webb meant so much to your program and was so productive throughout his four years. Khari Blasingame has made plays for you in the past. He's from near my community in New Market, Alabama. Talk about your expectations for him this year and also how -- I can't talk about specific names, but how you're kind of casting that net toward the Madison County area in recruiting now as well?
DEREK MASON: Yeah. I think what it comes down to, you have to have -- I mean, you can't be in the state of Tennessee and border Alabama and not dip down in Alabama and get talent. Some of our most prestigious players and best athletes have come out of that state.
With that being said, that's exactly what we've done. In terms of Khari, Khari is in a group or with a group of guys that I believe are as dynamic as we've had since we've been here. Ralph Webb had a tremendous career. I think the best is yet to come. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a name a lot of people don't know about. Ke'Shawn Vaughn is dynamic. Jamauri Wakefield out of Jacksonville, Florida, dynamic. Josh Crawford out of Alabama, dynamic.
I think we have more depth at the tailback position than we've ever had. It's not just about Khari. It's about all of these guys having to play well. But with the offensive line being better, our run game is going to get off to a fast start. And I believe it's going to help the pass game. We are going to be the type of offensive football team that is going to be exciting to watch, especially with the running backs and tight ends. With Khari leading that group, we truly believe we'll have success.
Q. I was curious if you had any thoughts on what
Larry Fedora said about football potentially being under attack as a defensive minded coach?
DEREK MASON: For me, I worry about my team. I worry about where I'm at. Obviously, my SID talks to me about hot-button topics. For me, I look at Coach Fedora and everybody's got a right to an opinion. I stay in my lane. I understand what my team needs.
I feel like right now, football is the greatest game going. So for me, we are going to protect our student-athletes. We're going to make sure we can do whatever we can to ensure their safety. That's part of our job as head coaches, part of the NCAA's job. Part of institutions jobs is to make sure our players are safe, and we're doing that. With that being said, I don't have much commentary on it.
Q. Two questions; one, just following up on Muschamp, what do you feel like the biggest thing he's done to get
South Carolina going? And two, the Redshirt Rule, how do you plan to utilize it and what do you think about it?
DEREK MASON: Will Muschamp recruiting. I truly believe he's done an excellent job recruiting. It's about players. This conference is littered with good coaches, littered with good coaches. You have to have good players. He's developed talent. I'll give him a lot of credit.
Overall -- what was the second part of that question?
DEREK MASON: Yeah, Redshirt Rule, I believe the Redshirt Rule is a rule that's been a long time in the making. And I thought it was archaic. And now, I truly believe it gives those guys who are ready to play an opportunity to play early.
For those guys now, especially with the departure of good players on the back end of the season, I truly believe it gives us an opportunity to get a young man acclimated to school, acclimated to the game of football, acclimated to the speed of the game. And then when he's ready to play, you can get him ready to play towards the end of the season, get him valuable experience to take him into year two. I think it's been a long time in the making. It's a great rule. We got it right. The NCAA got it right. Great for college football.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you for your time this morning, Coach.
DEREK MASON: Thank you.
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