News, notes on Vanderbilt athletics
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Photos by John Russell
Vanderbilt vs. Alabama A&M on Sept. 9, 2017 - Photos by Joe Howell and John Russell
USATSI Gallery - Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee
Vanderbilt season opener at MT (9/2/17) Photos by John Russell
The Vanderbilt football team began its 2017 campaign with its first day of camp (7/31/17)
Derek Mason enters his fourth season in charge of the Commodores with the program headed in the right direction, on and off the field.
In 2016, Mason’s Vanderbilt program improved its overall record and Southeastern Conference record for the third consecutive season. The Commodores finished the regular season 6-6 and 3-5 in SEC play, earning a trip to the Camping World Independence Bowl and the program’s first postseason appearance under Mason.
Vanderbilt’s 6-6 record in the 2016 regular season featured four wins in its final six games, including marquee SEC victories over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee. The Commodores topped Georgia, 17-16, on Oct. 15 for Vanderbilt’s first road win over an SEC opponent in Mason’s tenure. The Dores later closed the regular season by scoring a combined 83 points in wins over the Rebels and Volunteers. Their 45 points against Tennessee marked the program’s most in SEC play since 1971.
Under Mason, Commodore student-athletes are performing well on and off the football field.
In 2016, inside linebacker Zach Cunningham became Vanderbilt's first consensus All-American in more than three decades. The redshirt junior swept first-team honors from every prominent outlet in the nation. Cunningham's final accolade came Wednesday when the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) selected him to its First Team All-America Defense. In April, the Houston Texans selected Cunningham with the No. 57 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Running back Ralph Webb continued his surge to the top of the Commodore record books during Mason’s third season. As a redshirt junior, Webb earned second team All-SEC honors after rushing for 1,283 yards and 13 touchdowns on 250 carries, passing Zac Stacy to set a new program single-season rushing record. He enters the 2017 season as Vanderbilt’s all-time leader with 3,342 yards and 739 rush attempts.
In 2016, Mason's Commodores showed continued improvement in several key statistics. Vanderbilt was vastly improved inside the 20-yard line, leading the nation in red-zone defense (65.3 percent) and ranking sixth nationally in red-zone offense (93.5 percent). After struggling with turnovers in 2016, Mason's 2016 was much approved, finishing the yearforcing four more miscues than they committed.
Mason's steady improvement at Vanderbilt became evident after the 2014 season when he decided to add the role of defensive coordinator to his head coaching duties. The decision paid off immediately: Vanderbilt's 2015 defense ranked among the nation's most improved, finishing among the NCAA Top 30 in scoring defense, total defense, first downs allowed, red-zone defense and third-down efficiency.
In 2016, Mason's defense continued to impress, ranking high in the SEC in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and red-zone defense.
Mason enters the 2017 preseason with an excellent coaching staff that returns nearly intact from a year ago. The only change - former staffer Warren Belin replacing Osia Lewis at outside linebackers coach - was made only after Lewis needed reduced duties for medical reasons.
Mason has made impressive coaching hires since his first year on campus. Prior to the 2015 season, he lured highly regarded offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and head strength coach James Dobson from the Big Ten, along with a pair of impressive young staffers in secondary coach Marc Mattioli and wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton. Mason continued to enhance the staff before the 2016 campaign, hiring Lewis, Jeff Genyk as special teams coordinator/running backs coach and Cameron Norcross as offensive line coach. He capped off the staff changes by adding two rising stars in the profession in C.J. Ah You and Chris Marve, to mentor the defensive line and inside linebackers, respectively.
Those changes helped Mason guide back-to-back improvement in the Commodores in 2015-16, with keen observers of college football seeing more progress ahead.
Mason's recruiting at Vanderbilt also continues to rise. Mason's 2017 signing class of 21 prospects ranks as the highest in his Vanderbilt tenure and effectively targets positions of need for future Commodore squads.
Since arriving on campus, Mason has focused on developing men of character and integrity with the football team. Five former football players, including former starters in Patton Robinette and Jacob Schultz, have been accepted into the Vanderbilt Medical School in the last two years. In the last three calendar years, the team nas nearly 120 SEC Academic Honor Roll recipients and more than 60 Dean's List honorees.
Mason’s Commodores continued to serve as the SEC leader in the classroom. After guiding the Commodores to a share of the AFCA-Memphis Touchdown Club Academic Achievement Trophy in 2015, Vanderbilt topped the conference in four-year Academic Progress Rate (APR) last year, marking the third straight season the Dores have led the SEC in that category. Vanderbilt football finished fourth nationally with a 992 APR score, far ahead of the national average (962).
Mason's administration of the Vanderbilt program also includes innovation. He has also been instrumental in creating a summer internship program for Commodore student-athletes that is one of the most unique in the nation. Started in 2014 within the football team, the internship program has been expanded to other Vanderbilt squads, providing excellent work experience opportunities for student-athletes.
Mason has also supported foreign study by members of the team. Since 2014, eight Commodore players have studied abroad, including linebacker Oren Burks and offensive guard Ean Pfeifer this year.
The personable Mason has become actively involved in the Middle Tennessee community, contributing to several local and university causes, while making appearances at various social and sporting events.
"I am so excited to be at Vanderbilt," Mason said at the time he was hired. "This university combines the best of what's good about college athletics and academics. We expect to be competitive and look forward to competing for an SEC East crown."
Mason was defensive coordinator at Stanford since 2011, helping take the Cardinal to Rose Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, and consecutive Pac-12 titles with one of the nation's top defensive units. Under Mason, the Cardinal ranked among the NCAA national Top 15 in defensive efficiency for three consecutive years.
While facing seven ranked opponents and one of the nation's toughest schedules in 2013, Mason's defense ranked third in the NCAA in rushing defense (89.4 yards), 10th in scoring defense (19.0 points) and 16th in total offense (343.1 yards).
The Cardinal was one of only five teams last year to allow less than 100 rushing yards per game. The team was also among the best nationally in producing stops for negative yardage, ranking fifth with 44 sacks and seventh with 109 tackles for loss. The defense was also superb on third downs, holding opponents to a 32 percent conversion rate.
Off the field, the Cardinal ranks among the nation's best with a football graduation rate of 95 percent. Like Vanderbilt, Stanford ranks among the nation's elite academic universities.
In 2012, Mason was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach, after directing a defense that ranks among the best in the nation and finest in Stanford history. The 2012 unit broke Stanford's single season record for quarterback sacks and topped the Pac-12 in numerous categories, including scoring defense and total defense, helping the Cardinal to a 11-2 season capped off with a Rose Bowl crown.
Mason's leadership paved the way to a historic defensive output in 2012, breaking Stanford's single-season sacks record (57) and pacing the Pac-12 in scoring defense (17.2 points), total defense (336.2 yards) and rushing defense (97.0 yards). In 11 of 14 games in 2012, Stanford held its opponent to 20 or fewer points, including a 14-point effort in the overtime win at top-ranked Oregon, who led the FBS with a 54.8 scoring average.
The 2012 Stanford defense held eight of 13 opponents under 100 yards rushing, and in a string of three consecutive games, the Cardinal recorded three of its top-10, single-game rushing defense performances in school history.
In 2011, Mason's first year as co-defensive coordinator, he teamed with Jason Tarver to mold Stanford into one of the Pac-12's top defensive units. That season, the unit ranked either first or second in the Pac-12 in six defensive categories, including rushing defense, third-down conversion defense, scoring defense, total defense, sacks and opponent first downs. Stanford finished third nationally in rushing defense. Mason joined the Cardinal staff in 2010, serving as secondary coach under then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Mason's 2010 secondary, which featured three players now in the NFL, was one of the team's most improved units, posting 18 interceptions.
At Stanford, Mason helped develop an array of Cardinal defensive standouts, including All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman of the world champion Seattle Seahawks, All-America defensive end Trent Murphy, All-America linebacker Shayne Skov, and All-Pacific 12 safety Ed Reynolds.
Prior to his arrival in Palo Alto, Mason served as an assistant defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings from 2007 to 2009, playing a vital role in the team ranking sixth in total defense in 2008 and 2009 as the Vikings won NFC North titles each season. Mason was introduced to the NFL coaching circles through the Minority Fellowship program in 1996 with the St. Louis Rams and also spent time with the coaching staffs of the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders. He joined the Vikings staff in 2007, where he worked with defensive backs coach Joe Woods.
Before joining the Vikings, Mason tutored wide receivers at Ohio University under head coach Frank Solich, helping the Bobcats improve from 4-7 in 2005 to a 9-5 campaign the following year that ended with an appearance in the GMAC Bowl. Mason spent the 2004 season as the wide receivers coach at New Mexico State, where he helped the Aggies lead the conference in passing.
During the 2002 campaign, Mason mentored the receivers and assisted with the special teams at Utah. The Utes also featured the NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Alex Smith and eventual 7th round pick receiver Paris Warren.
Mason's move to Utah came after a three-year stint at Bucknell (1999-2001) in which he gained his first experience as a defensive assistant coach. At Bucknell, Mason served as defensive backs mentor for three straight winning Bison squads.
Mason's first three collegiate positions came as an offensive assistant at Mesa Community College (in 1994), Weber State (1995-96) and Idaho State (1997-98).
As a player, Mason was a two-year starter and four-year letterwinner at Northern Arizona. He was recruited to the university by Head Coach Larry Kentera, the grandfather of recent Vanderbilt receiver Kris Kentera.
During his NAU career, Mason was influenced by several outstanding coaches, including Kentera, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid, former Minnesota head coach Brad Childress, Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhingweg, former Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe, and former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell.
Mason earned a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice from Northern Arizona in 1993.
A native of Phoenix, Mason attended Camelback High School.
Derek and his wife, LeighAnne, have two daughters, Makenzie, 18, and Sydney, 16.