Feb. 5, 2014
Signing Day Central | Howell's Photos
Vanderbilt Head Football Coach Derek Mason
"I'm excited about where we are and what's happening today. It's been a busy two weeks of fast and furious recruiting. But I'll tell you what, I think what this staff did rivals what a two-minute drill or pressure situation is all about. When you look at this group of recruits you'll find depth, length, speed, athleticism, and more than anything else, character. We need men here at Vanderbilt; men who embody what we're about. And that's working to win championships. Looking at what this class was built upon, it looks like a class that was put together early. This class was assembled a while ago and obviously, we know about the change of staff and what happened there. Credit to the anchor part of this recruiting class and what they did in sticking with the process and understanding what Vanderbilt football is. I'm extremely excited today to talk to you about what this group is really about. Who they are, what are their strengths, how they improve this ball club and what makes this group so special from top to bottom."
On if last two weeks felt frantic:
"Not at all. I think when you talk frantic, that means out of control and no plan. We had a plan. We talked about what this process was going to be. The first thing was hiring a staff. The staff was assembled as we were going through this process. As they came in, they got on the road. We went to places and identified and talked to the young men who were already slated to come in that first weekend. We had a chance to get in front of them and their parents and talk about what our vision of this program was. With that being said, I think that the parents were intrigued. They came in, they saw. At that point in time, we started to submit what our brand of football was going to be. [We discussed] what we were about in terms of our characteristics and our plan for winning. We took it into that next week very much the same way except, as we got out, more of the staff was intact. We really had a chance to canvass the continental United States, from east to west. As you can see, when you look through the class, the class is a group of young men that come from the North, South, East and West. I think that's what great about this place. When you look at the Vanderbilt brand, the Vanderbilt brand is a national brand. Our class reflects that from top to bottom."
On recruitment of four-star defensive tackle Nifae Lealao:
"Nifae is extremely talented. For him, it was more about comfort. We had pursued Nifae at Stanford. Through his process, Stanford, California and some other schools were recruiting him. His recruiting changed throughout the process. I think he was looking for a place where he felt comfortable and felt at home. We had spent time with Nifae. We had a chance to watch him go play basketball as of last week. To see him on the basketball floor was amazing. He made my ears perk up and that doesn't happen often. Looking at him, [he's] athletic, strong, quick, agile and has extremely good court presence. That shows on film when you watch him football IQ and how he plays. Getting more into his recruiting, it was more or less about him feeling comfortable. He spoke with his dad and his dad got him on a plane on Friday.
Actually, Nifae was a little reluctant because it's so far away from home. He's a family guy. He got on a plane, came here and really was a little distant, to say the least. By the end of the first night, within 24 hours of being here, spending time with the recruits here, he felt at home. I think that's important. He comes from a tight family. They are close. I think amongst our players and amongst these guys who came in this past weekend, he felt extremely comfortable. And that was the kick for him. He wanted to feel comfortable and be in an environment where he felt that he could do all of the things he needed to do for him, but also add his own twist on how he saw this program being successful. He's a great competitor, so I'm thankful. Great player."
On type of players he looks for:
"I think what we had to do was establish some baselines; academic baselines and athletic baselines. First of all, academically we wanted to look at young men who hit that 3.0 GPA mark. That's what we wanted. I think, when you look at the academic acumen of this group, it falls somewhere in there. We looked at GPA, test score to see if they met the criteria. From there, we moved to the athletic acumen. There are more than enough student-athletes across the country who want this brand. By identifying academics first, then finding the athletic talent, we were able to streamline that search. We narrowed it down to a select few that we targeted. We went. We landed. We saw. We got back in planes and we kept going. That was the process. The process was that simple and fairly straightforward. In that process, I think we identified young men who fit exactly what we're about and what this brand is, in terms of the athletics and academics being able to coexist. We embrace it and we'll never move away from it. Vanderbilt football is based on being able to do two things. Great football means great athletics and great academics. For us when we look at the athletics and academics, they go hand in hand. They coexist. Finding those types of guys, we felt like we were able to solidify the brand and inform parents of what we have to offer. It came quickly. I think parents and children jumped on planes and came here. They saw and left excited and so were we."
On quarterbacks in this class, including athlete Ronald Monroe:
"Here's what I'll say about him [Monroe]. I think he's one of the most dynamic players in this class. When you watch him play and when you watch him move, you realize it doesn't matter where he plays. He's going to make an impact. It could be the return game, it could be as a receiver, it could be as a defensive back and it could even be as a quarterback. When you see dynamic players who can change games, you don't care. You want the productivity. And that's what he is. He's a productive player. He's the son of a military man. His dad is in Kuwait right now, so he understands what commitment is. He was willing to commit to the cause with the full understanding that it doesn't matter where he plays, just how he plays. When you look at [Shawn] Stankavage, in terms of what he is, he's excellent. Great feet. Great arm. He can see the field and comes from good stock, with his dad [Scott Stankavage] having played in the NFL. He's a competitor. He can hit tight windows and get the ball down the field. He's accurate and he extends plays, which I think is important at the quarterback position. When you look at [Wade] Freebeck, you look at his size. You look at the ability to throw from the pocket. You look at his presence. You look at his ability to win. I think when you talk about trying to build championship teams, you're talking about winners. It's not so much the games played, as much as the situations that you're in constantly. He played at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) at program that's nationally ranked. He's played in front of big crowds. When you talk about transitioning from high school to the SEC, it may not be the same but the environment and type of athlete are very similar for him. You're talking about three young men who can impact this program and will compete with the guys in this program."
On recruiting in the SEC with non-SEC staff:
"I don't see that as a detriment. Because, when you recruit nationally, it doesn't matter. I think that our brand is different, we have to recruit nationally, and it becomes more about the demographics. When you look at our student demographic and start talking Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, you're talking about places that are, really, unknown to most of the SEC. The SEC is really in the Southeast and we understand that, but when you have to go to Texas and California, a lot of times you've gotta step into somebody's backyard. And, in doing so, you have to have a product that speaks to being able to go into somebody's backyard and pull a student-athlete. So, for us, I didn't worry about SEC ties, I contemplated who are the best teachers, who are the guys I could send into homes and how impressive would they be as teachers and as ambassadors to the university, and that's what we've got. When we had a chance to get in front of parents, the parents melted. When you start talking Karl Dorrell, who's been a head coach, been at UCLA, been around a long time, NFL experience. For him to sit in a home and talk football, an education, an opportunity, it's easy. Brett Maxie, having played at the highest level, young men look at him and they say `OK, I see what you've done as a player, I see what you've done as a coach,' and that rings true to where they want to be at some point in time. When I looked at this staff across the board, they're guys that I trust, guys that I've been around and, at the end of the day, they understand what the landscape of college football requires."
On length and height in the recruiting class:
"Well in terms of length, this team will be built on length, period. On both sides of the ball, we need to continue to be longer, faster, and more athletic. I think sometimes, people look at the athleticism and the stars in terms of the speed part of it, and that really has no quotient in terms of the height. What we found over the last three or four years, in terms of what we were able to do at Stanford and other places is that length sometimes negates speed. When you're talking about arm length in terms of pass protection; when you're talking about size in terms of mass across the line and being able to establish the line across the line of scrimmage; when you're talking about being able to on the defensive side of the ball to get push and stop the run and close lanes, especially with the advent of the zone read game and what you see from Oregon and Auburn, being able to close down lanes quickly has changed the game. It's not necessarily about having small, fast guys; it's about having long guys who can eat up space. That's what we do; we want to be space takers. The way the game is played now, it's played from side to side, end zone to end zone, so what you're trying to do is shrink the dimensions of the field. So when you start to shrink the field, it gives you an opportunity to close gaps and really negate creases in terms of how offenses attack you, pass or run. That length closes pass lanes, length shuts down run lanes."
On Emmanuel Smith and local recruiting:
Emmanuel Smith is a rare talent. He's long, he's athletic, he's smart, he's intentional. He comes downhill, he's a three-dimensional player. He can play deep defense, he can run the alleys, and he can get down in the box and play like a backer and match. So, when you look at his skillset, a three-dimensional guy is what we look for. I don't see him as a strong safety, I don't see him as a free safety. Offenses can attack you based on where your strengths lie, so our safeties are going to be two dimensional. We don't talk about strong and free, we talk about right and left. However they try to match us up, I feel good about his skillset at all times. It's never going to be a matchup problem. He's going to be successful there because I've seen guys with his size, speed, and athleticism play at that position and I think, when it's all said and done, he's a difference maker. He's a guy that's got high production at his position."
On next year's recruiting class:
"We try to put this class to bed two days ago. We've just been talking to these guys about what lies ahead. We moved on to 2015, we've identified the 2015 guys in the state and nationally, who we need to talk to. Today, we actually got verbal offers out to 2015s. It's important in the state of Tennessee, we needed to touch our kids here in the state and we did and are doing that as we speak. It's important that people know that it hasn't stopped with this recruiting class, it's moved forward. This recruiting class is behind us, now what we have to do is continue to move forward. Those `15 kids have called in and are excited with where we are, so it's a great day to be at Vanderbilt."
On potentially adding to the current class:
"I think we're done right now. If anyone comes on the docket or comes across the waiver wires, we'll take a look. Like everybody else, anytime you can add a great student-athlete to your program, you'll look to do so. But, as of right now, we feel like moving scholarships forward is probably the best thing to do since next year's class will probably be a little smaller. You can look at some things that you need to address a year from now."
On Nifae Lealao's signing day announcement:
"Nifae is a humble young man. He understands the total idea of theatrics. So, for him, it was more his presentation and what he wanted to do. Really, in the end, he talked to us before he left and assured us that we had nothing to worry about. All I can do is take a man for his word and it was great."
On redshirting philosophy for next season:
"If you follow me and follow anything that we've done or anything, we've tried to put together, even with this coaching staff, we look to play young men. Here's the idea: the idea is when you look at recruiting, you take recruiting as these young men fit into your program, you don't know where, but if you start off by saying they're going to redshirt, right away you take away their stinger. They come here to compete, and you assure every young man he's going to have an opportunity to compete, so with that being said we allow them to compete and really let their strengths and deficiencies state where they're going to be in terms of whether they redshirt or not, and that's decided as we go into the season. So you don't talk about it early. What you do is, as you get into the season, you recognize that a young man is weak in some areas. Whether it's strength and conditioning, whether it's football accruement, or just speed of the game, and then from there you decide where he's going to go. If you look at our record, where I've been, I play more freshmen in college football than anybody over the last four years. Defensively, it was something we had to do to build depth and ensure that we would have an opportunity to play late in the postseason. If you have great student-athletes in your program who can contribute right now, you let them go, you let them play and let everything else sort itself out."
On any surprise regarding the recruiting class:
I won't say surprised, but I was very excited by the time it was all said and done. We were going to try and go in and do a great job and do the best that we could, but you hate to be surprised. In the end, I'm excited, overly elated as to how things turned out. We thought that we could put together a good class and these coaches just proved exactly that. I think in the end we are exactly who we say we are. Great job by those guys."
On current roster and addressing needs:
"As soon as my press conference was over, Mr. Williams can attest to this, we went straight to the staff room and started to look at the big board. We went to work. We left at 4 A.M. My press conference was out at 11, and we stayed until 4 in the morning just looking at film, the current roster, and recruits in terms of what we had and where we needed to go. We did the same thing on Sunday. We came in, woke up at about 7 and went until about 10 o'clock that night before we decided exactly where we needed to go. Preparation gives you a chance for execution, and we try to prepare ourselves and look at exactly that. What our depth looks like, areas of need, and then we tried to address those needs with this class. We felt like it wasn't flawless, but we definitely accomplished exactly what we wanted to accomplish."