Defense-driven Commodores could shock Eastern Division
Coaching changes are often detrimental to a team’s win-loss record during the first season, but that might not be the case at Vanderbilt this fall.
If he sticks to the Stanford model, Derek Mason believes the Commodores can exceed 2013’s memorable finish.
“Why have nine (wins) when you can have 10?,” Mason asked at SEC Media Days. “Why have 10 when you can have 11?”
Mason’s confidence as a first-year head coach shouldn’t attract doubters. His track record speaks for itself as college football’s only defensive mind the last two seasons to throw a wrench in Oregon’s high-powered offense.
Sixth in the SEC in total defense last season, much of the personnel molding that usually takes a year under a new regime has already been handled by the previous staff. It’s Mason’s turn to fine tune the intricacies and put his spin on a program that’s gotten more out of its two and three-star talent than most teams in the country over the last three seasons.
Mason doesn’t have Stanford-caliber defensive talent yet, but that doesn’t mean his side of the ball won’t be the straw that stirs the drink for the Commodores.
Moving from a 4-3 base to Mason’s patented 3-4 should create more sack opportunities off the blitz and propel athletic outside linebackers Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike to stat-healthy seasons. Poised to make a seamless switch into their new position, Woestmann and Azubike each played key roles in a disruptive defensive end rotation for Bob Shoop in 2013 on a unit that was better than advertised.
First-year Vanderbilt defensive coordinator David Kotulski, a former linebackers coach under Mason at Stanford, moved both athletes to the second tier this spring to take advantage of their expansive skillset as sideline to sideline starters.
The Commodores’ increased depth at linebacker with the addition of three 2014 signees who Mason believes will play this fall strengthens its strongest unit on defense, one that will pick up some of the slack due to inexperience at the back end.
Replacing four starters in the secondary is a major concern for Mason, but there’s a group players with game reps who appear up to the challenge. The void left by Andre Hal, who led the SEC in pass break-ups last season, is the biggest need.
Up front, Vanderbilt’s excited about the potential impact of four-star tackle Nifae Lealao, the highest-rated prospect to ever sign with the Commodores. Mason used his California ties to bring in the massive 6-foot-5, 315-pound freshman who will likely fit it nicely as the man in the middle of Vanderbilt’s 3-4 look.
Paired with Adam Butler, arguably the team’s top returning defender, the Commodores’ defensive line has a chance to be one of the Eastern Division’s best.
Mason’s West Coast philosophy on offense centers on pounding the football behind a well-coached offensive line, an element he’ll develop over time in Nashville. Backed by one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, the smashmouth mentality worked well for Stanford and the Commodores will utilize notes from that same handbook this season.