Coach Derek Mason is determined to put his own mark of toughness on the Vanderbilt University football program as it continues its climb into the ranks of conference heavyweights.
Vanderbilt is coming off its first consecutive nine-win seasons and Top 25 rankings in team history, along with a 41-24 victory over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Mason, an associate head coach and director of one of the nation’s best defenses at Stanford University, sees parallels between the Cardinal and Commodore programs, as well as an opportunity to compete for an SEC East championship, something that just a few years ago would have drawn laughs in football circles.
Mason took a timeout to chat with Ledger in advance of the Aug. 28 season opener against Temple in Nashville and the Sept. 6 SEC opener against Ole Miss at LP Field.
Q: You came from one of the top academic universities in the nation in Stanford, but it developed one of the strongest football programs in the PAC-12. What must be done at Vanderbilt, also a top-notch academic institution, to reach that same level of excellence in football?
A: “Vanderbilt needs to be the best Vanderbilt it can be. If we accomplish that, we will see excellence. In my mind, it’s a day-by-day process. Building a winning football program that stands above others takes effort, commitment, focus and dedication.
“Every single person in the program has an important role, and everyone has to be pulling in the same direction. If we take that approach, Vanderbilt will start seeing the results.’’
Q: After decades of playing second fiddle to the University of Tennessee and some other football programs in the state, Vanderbilt has been winning against the Vols in recent years. What must you do to maintain an edge over the rivals from Knoxville?
A: “We’re starting to re-create a rivalry between the two schools again, and it’s important that we continue to experience success in the series to make sure the rivalry grows.
“It’s a bigger question than maintaining an edge over one opponent. To go from nine-win seasons to 10 and 11 wins, we have to continue to grow the program, continue taking the next step in building the Vanderbilt brand into one that gets notice and respect across the country. I know it can happen at Vanderbilt because I was part of seeing it happen at Stanford.’’
Q: What sort of welcome has the Nashville and Middle Tennessee community given you since you came to town?
A: “Absolutely tremendous. Nashville, the surrounding area and especially the Vanderbilt community, have been very welcoming to my family. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the city, discovering Nashville’s unique neighborhoods, and finding one great restaurant after another. It’s been fun for our family.
“I had a chance to touch this community – and it has touched me in return. Even though Nashville is a large city, I love the fact that it doesn’t have that feel. It’s a vibrant city, and it’s just a very friendly place.’’
Q: What is your outlook for the Commodores for 2014?
A: “I think this squad has a chance to become a very good football team. We just need to get a little better each practice and each game. The SEC is the best conference in the nation and has a number of excellent teams, but I definitely think we can be one of those teams.
“For us to enjoy the kind of success every Vanderbilt fan wants, we’ll have to play smart, winning football, and take advantage of our opportunities, just do all the little things at a very high level.’’
Q: What areas need the most building or rebuilding?
A: “We lost some playmakers from a year ago, guy like Jordan (Matthews), Wesley (Johnson) and all four starters in the secondary, so you could say we’re rebuilding several units such as the receivers and (defensive) secondary, but we have talented guys ready to assert themselves at virtually every position.
“We’ll be young at wide receiver, but we have quality guys there, such as Jordan Cunningham, Latevius Rayford, C.J. Duncan and Kris Kentera and others. Our incoming freshman receivers also are extremely talented.
“I see improvement at tight end, with Nathan Marcus and the addition of Davis Dudchock from Stanford.
“Our fans are going to be excited when they see the talent of our secondary. Andrew (Williamson), Oren (Burks) and Jahmel (McIntosh) are what coaches are trying to find at the safety positions.
“We’re young at the cornerback position, but I have been tremendously excited with the improvement and athleticism of that group. A number of guys could factor at cornerback during the season.’’
Q: What are your strong points heading into 2014?
A: “The Vanderbilt fans are about to make their determination for themselves. The offensive line has stood out during the spring and much of our (preseason) camp). We have some physical guys up front that have played a lot of snaps and enjoyed success. That group can be special.
“I’ve also been impressed with our front seven (on defense), though we lack the depth you’d ideally like to see on the line. I’ve been impressed with the gradual improvement from virtually everybody on the (defensive) line.
“We also have quality guys ready to go at the linebacker positions.’’
Q: What is your long-term goal for the Vanderbilt football program?
A: “Our goals are the same as virtually every other team in the country. On the football field, our goals are high. We have talked about competing for championships, starting with the SEC East title.
“That hasn’t changed from the first day we arrived, and it will remain our goal on the field.
“We also have a responsibility to be graduating our student-athletes and having them prepared to become productive citizens. As head coach, I believe you have to ask yourself if you’re doing everything in your power to prepare your players for the next 40 years, not just the next four years.
“I talk to our players about being Vanderbilt Men, and everything that goes into becoming a Vanderbilt Man. Academics and the student-athletes’ overall college experience are critically important, and both will continue to be the focus at Vanderbilt.”