Commodores to start spring practice Tuesday

March 10, 2014

Spring Guide | Mason Press Conference | Coordinators Dorrell, Kotulski and Bankins

Taylor and Woestmann | Townsend and Kentera

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - More than 75 prospects, including 43 letterwinners from a 2013 Vanderbilt squad that finished 9-4 and ranked among the nation's Top 25 teams, are expected on the practice field Tuesday afternoon as the Commodores open spring practice on campus.

After consecutive nine-win seasons capped by postseason bowl victories, there will be plenty of change coming to the Vanderbilt practice field. None is more significant than the Commodore coaching staff where Derek Mason takes the helm in Nashville after helping the Stanford Cardinal to four consecutive BCS bowl appearances.

Mason and a staff of eight new assistant coaches headed by offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kotulski are expected to introduce new schemes to a squad that returns 12 starters from a year ago.

The Tuesday workout will be the first of 15 practices leading to the Black & Gold Spring Game on Saturday, April 12. The featured spring game, free to Commodore fans, will kick off at 10 a.m., in Vanderbilt Stadium. Later that day, Tim Corbin's Vanderbilt baseball faces Texas A&M in nearby Hawkins Field. 

Mason replaces James Franklin as the Vanderbilt head coach. As an Stanford assistant, including the last three years as defensive coordinator, Mason helped the Cardinal to two straight Pac-12 championships and consecutive appearances in the Rose Bowl. Stanford went 45-8 overall during Mason's tenure and also played in the Orange Bowl and Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Mason wants to see competition at every position during his first Vanderbilt spring practice. "We're going to let guys play themselves into positions. It's about open competition at every position. This spring will be about solidifying our depth," the new coach said.

Key Openings
While every starting role is open, several key starting positions are open following the graduation of 13 seniors from the 2013 squad that defeated Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl last January, finishing the year ranked No. 23 and No. 24 by the coaches and Associated Press, respectively.

On offense, the quarterback, wide receiver and left tackle roles are vacant after the graduation of Austyn Carta-Samuels, Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause and Wesley Johnson, respectively. On defense, the new staff will need to replace the entire starting secondary from a year ago, along with one defensive end and linebacker role.

Scrimmage Saturday, March 22 will be open
Commodore fans will have at least one opportunity to see the team in action before the Black & Gold Spring Game. Mason is opening the team's first spring scrimmage, scheduled for Saturday, March 22, to the public. It is expected to start about 10 a.m.

Vanderbilt Head Coach Derek Mason
Opening Comments:
"I think spring ball is definitely a time of great excitement. I know this staff and these young men, with where we are right now, feel like it can't get here fast enough. We've looked at it, we've talked about it, we've sort of danced around it a little bit, but now is where the rubber meets the road. It's time for us to start laying the foundation, in terms of what we see as winning football. You tear it down every year and you build it back up. For us, I'm excited to see these kids. They've done a great job over these last couple of weeks of putting in the work that we've asked of them. I think from a staff perspective, I'm very fortunate. I'm blessed to be around guys who get it. They get it. They understand it. They're smart and intelligent; not only about football, but about teaching young men. More than anything else, they understand where we're trying to go and what we're trying to do.

This thing is going to come and go fast, but the thing we're going to try to do is slow down the process a little bit with our practice schedule. Our practice schedule will be a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule, where we get three practices in every week. That's meant to give us an opportunity to teach and evaluate. I think we have a good idea of what some of these guys are athletically. Once you start to put the pads on and move guys around a little bit, you really start to see the pieces come together in terms of what your team is, what their skillset is and what these guys are, individually and collectively. That's something I'm looking forward to.

I'm looking forward to the evaluation process. It's going to be open competition. Every job is open. I've told every player on our football team, so they know and understand. Iron sharpens iron. We want to make sure that we make it competitive across the board. I could care less about what players have done in the past. I care more about what's happening now. We're going to make it open and let guys compete. Let's see what it looks like top to bottom. I don't care what your status was before we came in here. I do know this. I know we have a football team that knows what it is to win. They've got some experience. There are some great, experienced guys on this team, but we have to let those guys sort themselves out, in terms of who they are.

The last part I'll talk about is the leadership of the team. I think every year you have some leadership amongst your football team and the one thing you try not to do, as a coach, is to make leaders. I think what you do is you allow guys to show what their leadership skills look like. I think leaders are made, not born. You cultivate it, but by the same token, what you're looking to do is to make sure it's not fake or false. Whether it's from the quarterback position, d-line position, linebacker position, all of those things have to be natural. We're looking for guys who can lead this team. In order to able to lead, those guys have to be able to follow. We'll look to go through these 15 practices, see who can follow, who can lead, what this team is going to be about and, in the end, reassess and make sure we put the pieces together so that we have a pretty good idea of who works where. As of right now, we don't really know what it all looks like, but just that we have talented players."

On taking on a big picture role:
"I think I'm ready to move to the big picture stuff. I think the shoes are always a little big when you put them on. You start to wiggle your feet around and then all of the sudden your toes start to spread around and you get a feel for exactly what's happening. I think I've tasted what it is to get that first part done, in terms of the initial rush of what it is to be a head coach. When it comes to the football part, I'm very mindful of what I want this team to look like. I've talked to our staff. I've talked to these players. I know exactly what I want us to be on offense and defense. What we have to do first is evaluate who we have and where we're at. I do know this. We have to continue to do the things that take no talent. We've got to play smart, we've got to be able to line up, to be able tackle, to be able knock people off the ball. Those things don't take talent; they take disciple, effort and a pure understanding of what we do. For me, I'm a big picture guy, in terms of taking our time in making sure the foundation is laid and that this football team looks, acts and plays the way we want it to."

On time spent in front of the team:
"I've tried to get in front of the team maybe five or six times. I'm not an everyday get in front of the team type of guy. These guys have been trying to impress us with what they know and what they can do, from a movement perspective. What I've tried to do, when I've been fortunate enough to get an opportunity to get in front of these guys, is to talk about our mindset, our temperament and what we want to be about. I really just try to speak to what our philosophy is in all three phrases. I'm not trying to inundate them with that, but just trying to let them digest it by giving it to them a little bit at a time. You've got to remember that this unit is a good football unit. They've won games. What you have to do is talk about what you see and how you see things being done. I think what I've tried to do in those five or six times being in front of these guys is just make sure they understand what the expectation is."

On his thoughts about the roster:
"Right now, I want to see guys and assess guys for what they are. I've looked at film. I've watched all the tape, so I know what they are on tape. The thing that I want to match up is the movement part of it and see how that works. I think we're solid on both sides of the line. When I say solid, I think we're good with the opportunity to be great. Offensively, we have a strong, talent-laden group up front, in terms of their ability to bend, to be able to move the line of scrimmage and to be able to pass protect. I think we're going to be fine, in terms of what I've seen from the movement portion. I still want to be leaner and I want to be bigger. When I say lean and big, I'd like for us to be 300 pounds across the board. I don't want to be 300 pounds and sit at 30 percent body fat. I want these guys to be lean. I want them to be mean, so they can play 60-plus minutes. In the SEC, that's what it's going to take for us to win ballgames. We're going to have to drag teams into deep water, take them late in the fourth and even into overtime to win some ballgames. That's just the way it is. For us, it's not just about being big. It's about being big and being able to play 60-plus minutes. I think those guys up front offensively, from what I've seen, can do that. On the defensive side of the ball up front, with the change to some schematics, in terms of what we'll look like, I think what we addressed was some depth issues inside. I think we'll be stout. From what I've seen so far, we are athletic enough to play a physical style of ball that allows us to knock back. I know this is the SEC, but as I've watched these guys move around and seen their ability to put hands on in some of the individual sessions, I'm really impressed. I think we're bigger than we ever were at Stanford. I thought at Stanford, our reputation was to be able to put hands on, to be able to get off and disengage and to change the line of scrimmage. I think these guys will be a little more adept because of their size and how athletic they are. That's impressive to me because that's where you want to build it, up front on both sides of the ball.

When it comes to our linebacking positioning, think we're going to need to solidify some depth inside. I think we have some solid players on the inside. I know some guys have played here, but right now, I need to see if I can find four inside linebackers. You have to have at least four. If we're going to play 22 to 27 guys, you have to have inside linebackers that give you depth. I'm looking to see what the spring solidifies there, in terms of depth. Outside backer: I feel good about what the outside backer position can be. We have some guys, specifically when you're talking about [Stephen] Weatherly or Caleb [Azubike] that are different in terms of what they bring to the table. Right now, they're going to have to nurse some injuries and they'll be limited. We'll see how that works out as we push through spring. Secondary-wise, I think it's a young group of guys. They've got a lot of playing experience, but I'm used to guys playing young. In that secondary, I just expect those guys to come out and we're going to have some freshman that are going to come in here and compete. We're going to compete. You've got to play young guys and that's just part of it. We have some guys that I think move well and are athletic. My question is whether or not we can tackle consistently enough to be effective. And that's what we've got to do. We've got to do two things in the secondary. You've got to play top-down because you're the last line of defense and you've got to be able to tackle. If you tackle, it gives you the opportunity to get off the field on third downs. That's so critical for us, just in terms of defending big plays and getting off the field. These guys did a pretty good job of turning the ball over a year ago, so I'm definitely excited to see those guys.

When you flip back over to the offense, you look at what's happening with our tight end position. I think it's definitely an area of need. We have bodies. I want to see if we have any depth. I care less about the bodies and care more about the production. Do we have a true Y? Do we have guys that can be H-backs or "Move Guys" and how does that affect our system? We're going to look at that, evaluate it and move forward from there. These first five or six practices will give us a good idea and then we'll talk and see how they play down the stretch. As we look at what's happening outside, who's going to replace Jordan [Matthews]. You saw Jordan, you saw [Jonathan] Krause and a slew of guys play. Right now, I can't say that we have those guys. We're not ready to anoint anybody. I think what we're going to do is have some balance to what we do. I want to see these guys come out and play this spring. I know some names have popped up like Jordan Cunningham. I think right now he's a solid player who had a great college career that we need to see transition to this level in order to say that he's the guy. I'm not skeptical. I just want to see these guys play. These guys deserve an opportunity to play before I look to move guys around or pass any judgment on guys. When you look at the running back position, I think the running back position is solid. I want to see who can run between the tackles. I've seen [Brian] Kimbrow and some of the other guys play a little bit. My idea is that, right now, I think that they are a solid group. I want to see who sets themself apart because the one thing that you have to be is three-dimensional. You've got to be a guy who can pass protect, you've got to be able to run between the tackles and you've got to show an innate ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. That pass protection part of it is going to be huge, though. We've got to be able to pass protect. Still, between the fullback and the Y position, it will be interesting to see how that shakes out because we're looking to see who is going to fill those voids. It'll show itself. I think the last thing is the quarterback position. In order for you to be a good football team and give yourself a change, you have to be capable at the quarterback position. We're capable. We have to see how far along we are and what that looks like. How competitive its going to be going through spring is going to be imperative to not only the position growth, but also the team's growth.

I think [Patton] Robinette has a leg up in terms of games played and experience. I've been impressed to look at where [Johnny] McCrary is, just in terms of his football acumen. At times, I've seen some glimpses at what he can bring to the table. I've been impressed. Patton's done a great job in terms of his leadership and asking him to step up and do some things. It's going to be interesting just to see these guys. We'll see how [Josh] Grady continues on, just in terms of his rehab and what that looks like. Summer will take care of its self because we're going to have some guys come in here and compete. I'm really ready to see these guys. I'm ready to see what we have in the program. Let's move forward and let's see what this thing looks like."

On whether small frames of Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour can consistently run between the tackles:
"Stepfan Taylor is with the [Arizona] Cardinals now. Kimbrow and those guys are just as big as Stepfan was. Stepfan proved adequately that he can run between the tackles, breaking Toby [Gerhart's]'s records. I think it's more of a mindset of what are you willing to do? You've got to run between the tackles. We need yards gained. Getting out on the perimeter in this conference, as we all know, you have to watch out and take your shots. It's too fast from sideline to sideline in this conference, so you have to attack teams downhill and then take the opportunities to get on the perimeter when they come. It always starts with a downhill mentality, so I think they're going to be fine."



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