Why Derek Mason will be the 2021 version of Barry Odom
Man gets fired as head coach of struggling SEC program. Man accepts job as SEC defensive coordinator. Man becomes invaluable member of SEC staff. Man becomes a legitimate Broyles Award candidate, earns a significant raise and reminds the college football world that he’s pretty darn good at coaching up a defense.
That man was Barry Odom in 2020. Don’t be surprised when it describes Derek Mason in 2021.
The former Vanderbilt coach doesn’t necessarily have the overhaul that Odom had in Year 1 in Fayetteville — Kevin Steele was good at coaching defenses and perhaps even better at earning a quick $860,000 for a couple months of work at Tennessee — but Mason can still prove to be a significant upgrade from last year.
The Tigers are coming off a year in which they finished 38th in FBS in points allowed, which was the first and only time in Steele’s 5 seasons on The Plains that Auburn didn’t produce a top-20 defense. More specifically, the Tigers struggled to defend the pass. They were No. 79 in America.
If there’s one thing amidst all the year-to-year change at Auburn in Year 1 of the Bryan Harsin era, improving that area seems like the safest bet.
(Yes, I realize Tank Bigsby having a monster season feels like an even better bet, but with how much contact he takes on at the running back position, he’s by no means a lock to start and finish the year healthy. I pray to the football gods that he gets a clean bill of health in 2021.)
Mason has one of the SEC’s best secondaries. It’s a unit he said could be “very formidable,” which sounds modest because it is.
Hard-hitting Jamien Sherwood and Jordyn Peters are gone, but Smoke Monday, Roger McCreary, Nehemiah Pritchett, Jaylin Simpson and Christian Tutt are back. There’s also a lot of optimism around Ladarius Tennison, who Owen Pappoe said “is going to have a huge year.”
Pappoe and Zakoby McClain, who led the SEC in tackles last year, return as 2 of the league’s top linebackers.
There’s no denying that Mason stepped into an ideal situation. From the sound of it, that influenced his decision to want to come to Auburn instead of returning to the NFL. It was a conversation with Harsin that helped open the door for Mason to make staying in the college game a real option.
“I think for us, there were so many things we connected on,” Mason said at Auburn’s spring practice. “Some of those ideas were philosophical, some of those ideas were just about life and ball and how we see family.
“And so, when we had an opportunity to talk, the conversation was very much to the point of his vision of Auburn. And that vision was set in stone, it was very strategic, it had all the making of what I thought a good leader should talk about coming into a situation like this, which I thought was unique.”
It is unique. Mason went from recruiting and coaching classes that didn’t rank in the top 50 to Auburn, where there are blue-chip recruits all over the defense (Auburn never ranked worse than No. 12 in the 247sports class rankings from 2010-20). Shoot, even when Mason was the defensive coordinator at Stanford, he only helped sign 1 top-20 class.
Speaking of those days in Palo Alto (Calif.), go back to when Mason was focused strictly on defense. He was the defensive backs coach in 2010, but he added a defensive coordinator title in 2011-13. Here’s how his defenses performed at Stanford:
And in case you were wondering, Stanford was No. 69 in FBS in scoring defense the year before Mason arrived.
In other words, yeah, dude was good at his job. That’s why he got his first head coaching opportunity at the Power 5 level.
It’s eerily similar similar to Odom, who made a name for himself by turning around defenses at Memphis and Mizzou before getting his first head coaching job.
Now, Mason is back in that defensive coordinator role, albeit with some higher stakes. He’s now in a division wherein 2 teams (2019 LSU and 2020 Alabama) just fielded historically dominant offenses and a pair of Year 2 coaches (Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach) are widely considered 2 of the best offensive minds in the sport. Oh, and the offensive-minded Jimbo Fisher just delivered Texas A&M’s best finish in 81 years while cross-division foe Georgia is on the cusp of producing a historically dominant offense of its own.
Again, no pressure.
Mason is obviously plenty familiar with the SEC spotlight, but it certainly shines a little brighter on The Plains. Steele essentially replicated the success that Mason had at Stanford and that couldn’t earn him a spot on the new staff.
(I won’t fault a coach for not wanting to retain anyone from the previous regime. There’s a natural power struggle there whether either party admits it or not.)
And besides, Harsin was always going to be able to give Mason full autonomy on that side the ball. It wasn’t like Mason was going to Kentucky to work with a defensive-minded head coach like Mark Stoops. Sure, Harsin has input, but that’s Mason’s unit.
It was important for Harsin, who spent 22 of the last 26 years of his life at Boise State, to bring on someone who understands the conference. The same was true for Sam Pittman, who had spent his entire career as an assistant, to bring on someone with SEC head coaching experience like Odom. Even though Odom’s raw numbers as a defensive coordinator weren’t great in Year 1 — depth issues down the stretch played a massive part in a late-season decline — he still undoubtedly put players in better spots to make plays. That’s what Mason should be able to do.
It was interesting reading some of the comments that came out of Mason’s first media availability on Monday. He came off like someone who has a renewed sense of energy after what had to be a maddening final year at Vanderbilt.
Mason said, “I’m a soldier. I can lead, but I can also follow” (via Josh Vitale). He’ll be asked to do both at Auburn. This seems like a role that can actually set up Mason for success instead of the head job at Vanderbilt, which often seemed like asking him to run on ice with sneakers on.
Timing is everything in life. Harsin was fortunate to get Mason when he did. That move could be what allows Harsin to establish a Year 1 foundation in his new surroundings. By season’s end, he could be thanking his lucky stars that he talked Mason to sticking around the college ranks.
That’s not hard to picture at all.