One of the strongest qualities of a leader is the ability to see your own faults and make changes as a result.
That’s exactly what Vanderbilt Football head coach Derek Mason has done after last season’s disappointing 5-7 finish. In the months since he walked off the field at Neyland Stadium with a victory over the hapless Tennessee Volunteers, Mason has made changes to his staff and brought in a stellar 2018 recruiting class.
In 2017, Vanderbilt’s glaring problem was on the defensive side. Under a defensive mastermind head coach that was also acting as defensive coordinator, the Commodore defense gave up 31.3 points per game, 90th in the FBS. They also gave up 393 total yards per game, 64th in the FBS.
It was reasonable to expect a regression from a defense losing some key leaders like Zach Cunningham and Adam Butler. But, this wasn’t just a regression. It was pathetic, and something needed to change.
Mason, who is one of the most humble coaches you will ever interact with, knew he couldn’t keep control of the defense and be an effective head coach. So he brought in Jason Tarver, a former NFL defensive coordinator. Like Mason’s last defensive coordinator, David Kotulski, Mason and Tarver worked together at Stanford. But unlike Kotulski, Tarver has actually been a defensive coordinator before.
Vanderbilt has produced immense defensive NFL talent over the last decade, including D.J. Moore, Casey Hayward, Andre Hal, Stephen Weatherly, Butler and Cunningham. With his NFL experience, Tarver should be able to develop what will be a young Commodore defense in 2018 into a formidable force.
On special teams, Vanderbilt was completely lackluster. They were 12th in the SEC in gross yards per punt and yards per punt return. Mason made a change by firing special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk and bringing in Shawn Mennenga to the position. Mennenga knows a thing or two about punting, having played on a an 0-16 Browns team that had to punt a lot.
With these hires, Mason has shown that he is unhappy with the results of last season and is willing to make changes to improve the team.
In addition, this year’s recruiting class is significantly better than the last one. Mason’s 2017 class was not as good as it could have been, placing outside the top 60 in 247 Sports’ final rankings. Vanderbilt finished in the top 40 in some rankings in 2018 and fills some immediate team needs with Camron Johnson at wide receiver, as well as Brendon Harris and Tre Douglas in the secondary.
Perhaps most importantly, Mason put another name in the quarterback line of succession with four-star Allan Walters. The New Jersey native will likely follow Deuce Wallace to the starting role, but if Wallace falters once he assumes the job, Walters could be a viable alternative starting in 2019.
It’s impossible to argue that Mason didn’t up his recruiting game for 2018, and as a result, the Commodores will be better down the line, and could be better despite their youth.
Perhaps the most important thing that these developments show is that Mason and this team are unhappy with a 5-7 season. 10 years ago, a 5-7 record would have earned the coach a pat on the back. Nothing would have changed.
That’s not the Vanderbilt Mason knows or wants. The baseline for each season is a bowl game. He didn’t make one, so things changed. Mason wants more, and this program wants more.
There’s no guarantee that these changes will produce results, but the fact that there are changes at all is a good sign.