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For Vanderbilt, optimism soaring going into season

by Tom Murphy | July 30, 2018 at 2:31 a.m.
Derek Mason of Vanderbilt speaks during the Southeastern Conference Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, Thursday, July 19, 2018. (AP Photo/John Amis)

ATLANTA -- If you're happy and you know it, talk like Derek Mason at SEC media days.

Mason, the fifth-year head coach at Vanderbilt, spoke with glee about the wave the Commodores are riding entering 2018.


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2018 schedule

Sept. 1 Middle Tennessee

Sept. 8 Nevada

Sept. 15 at Notre Dame

Sept. 22 South Carolina*

Sept 29 Tennessee State

Oct. 6 at Georgia *

Oct. 13 Florida *

Oct. 20 at Kentucky *

Oct. 27 at Arkansas *

Nov. 10 at Missouri *

Nov. 17 Ole Miss *

Nov. 24 Tennessee *

*SEC game

Vanderbilt at a glance

Last season 5-7, 1-7 (sixth in SEC East)

Coach Derek Mason (18-31 in fifth year at Vanderbilt and overall)

Returning starters (12) Offense 8, Defense 4

Key returning players QB Kyle Shurmur, S LaDarius Wiley, OL Justin Skule, OLB Charles Wright, WR Kalija Lipscomb, TE Jared Pinkney, LB Jordan Griffin

SEC title scenario The Commodores are one of many Eastern Division teams seen to be on the upswing, so to think they could outperform the other risers and challenge Georgia would seem like a stretch. However, the return of the QB Shurmur and the best depth in Mason’s tenure give the Commodores’ hope they can return to a bowl game.


Fourteenth and final in a series previewing the 2018 SEC football season

"I look at our depth and say it's as good as it's ever been," Mason said. "For us, the depth is there, the athleticism is there, the leadership is there. I believe it's our time.

"We're going to play well. We're going to come out of the blocks and play the way we need to, and we're going to finish this the way we should. The Vanderbilt way."

Mason's effervescence lasted throughout his media day appearance.

"He's awesome," senior Kyle Shurmur said. "A motivator. I love playing for him. He gets us ready to play and I'd run through a wall for him."

The Commodores, a traditional doormat in the SEC and over the last quarter century in the SEC East, have had periodic upswings that have led to bowl bids and upper-division finishes in the conference. Mason thinks this could be another of those times, for several reasons.

Among them, overall depth, difference-makers on both the offensive and defensive lines, a veteran quarterback, and a defensive coordinator after his own heart that will take play-calling duties away from Mason for the first time since he made himself defensive coordinator in 2015.

"I'm happy to relinquish the title of defensive coordinator," Mason said. "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."

Tarver, who spent 16 years in the NFL with the 49ers and Oakland Raiders, has the ability to make complex football seem real easy, Mason said.

"His energy, his passion, his attention to detail, his coaching style [are] very similar to mine, but I believe his football IQ 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," Mason said.

"I'm excited about that. I'm excited about me getting back to the responsibilities of being head coach, CEO of a program."

The Commodores increased their win totals in three successive years under Mason, from 3-9 in his debut season of 2014, to 4-8 and 6-7 before falling back to 5-7 last year.

Vanderbilt experienced a big mid-season dip after a promising start. The Commodores opened 3-0 and were on the brink of making the top 25 after a 14-7 victory over Kansas State before falling 59-0 at home to No. 1 Alabama.

The Commodores wound up losing five in a row by an average score of 46-20 with setbacks after Alabama to Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina before going 2-2 in their last four games, including a season-ending 42-24 victory at Tennessee.

Mason said as the defensive coordinator he overreacted to the blowout loss to Alabama poorly by trying to grind the team harder when it didn't need it.

"You can't let one [loss] become two become three become four in this conference," he said. "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 birds-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."

Shurmur, the son of New York Giants head Coach Pat Shurmur, ranks No. 5 among returning SEC quarterbacks with 228 yards of total offense per game, and No. 3 among returners with 235 passing yards per game. His efficiency rating in 2017 was 137.6 however, one of the lowest among SEC starters.

He'll be protected by a full complement of returning starters on the offensive line, led by seniors Bruno Reagan, Justin Skule and Egidio DellaRipa.

"We're returning all five on the offensive line so my expectations are high," Skule said. "There are playmakers all around the board, so we've got to do our job protecting the holes and letting them do their jobs."

Shurmur said the veteran presence should pay dividends.

"I think you grow through experience," Shurmur said. "Being on the field and learning by trial and error, I think has helped a lot of guys on our offense grow over the past few years."

Veteran safety LaDarius Wiley thinks the Vanderbilt offense is in good hands with Shurmur at the helm.

"I face him every day in practice and he's made us a better defense," Wiley said. "Playing against some of the best quarterbacks in the SEC, I'm able to compare them to him and I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC."

Wiley and the Vanderbilt defenders understand the necessity of improving after allowing 31.3 points and 393.1 yards per game last year.

"It'll still be tenacious and all-gas, no-brakes style," Wiley said. "We go off the principles of extreme violence, getting to the ball and being playmakers.

"You'll see a technically sound defense. You'll see a hungry, talented and young defense."

Mason described himself as an unseasoned head coach in 2014 who had to learn through adversity how to become a better head coach and a better man.

"I'm excited about year five," he said. "I'm back where I started. I'm a head coach again, head coach only. So that's fun for me.

"I believe my vision now is much different than it was 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."

Sports on 07/30/2018

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