Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason hasn’t forgotten about the ugly start to his first season as the Commodores’ coach, he just chooses not to dwell on it.
After reaching a bowl game the past three years (a school record) and having back-to-back nine-win season for the first time ever, the Commodores plodded out to an excruciating 1-5 start that included an embarrassing 37-7 home loss to Temple and getting outscored 150-61 in four SEC games.
The transition from the wildly successful James Franklin was going to be tough for anyone, but after unprecedented wins under Franklin, Mason’s start was as major letdown.
But as the Commodores get set for Saturday’s showdown with a Florida team clawing its way back into the SEC Eastern Division race, Mason sees renewed energy in his team. He has found a group that’s more like a family and has slowly started to build some confidence.
“It takes a little time to catch rhythm, especially in a conference like the SEC,” Mason said, “but we feel good about the way this program is headed and the strides we’re making week in and week out. We have to continue to be about the work that looks like progress.”
Stuck at the bottom of the SEC East, the Commodores (3-6, 0-5 SEC) aren’t the edgy group they were under Franklin, but they’ve shown improvement in the past couple of weeks, doubling their September win total.
Back then, things were a disaster. There was no cohesion, as the offense sputtered behind an awkward quarterback rotation and the defections of talent such as running back Brian Kimbrow and receiver Jordan Cunningham.
Original starter Patton Robinette couldn’t stay health,y and backups Stephen Rivers and Wade Freebeck struggled with consistency. Unfortunately for Mason, finding the right guy meant taking a journeyman approach to the quarterback position.
Mason had a young team across the board and complicated matters by some young coaching of his own.
There are always growing pains under a new regime. Parts don’t always fit and philosophies clash. Players left because of that, and Mason’s coaching fluctuated at times. It seemed as though Vanderbilt had destroyed everything built in the previous three years.
But in the last few weeks, Mason says his team has found some continuity and a quarterback. Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary has started the last two games after coming off the bench to lead Vandy to a close win over Charleston Southern. In two starts, McCrary has averaged 238.5 passing yards with seven touchdowns. He took Missouri down to the wire (on the road) and engineered a 42-28 win over Old Dominion.
Mason has learned to adapt to and utilize his team’s strengths more. That’s why the Commodores are running more, giving freshman Ralph Webb a bigger role, and working their tight ends more to help inexperienced receivers.
The defense is making strides, and while the Commodores are out of the SEC East race, Mason feels his team is finding a blue-collar mentality and becoming a tighter unit.
“These guys have gotten in the boat, grabbed an oar and rowed,” Mason said. “We really don’t care who’s in front of us or really what the mission is. We just know we have a mission and we’re all trying to get to the same destination together.”
There’s never a road map for these situations. It isn’t easy to win at Vandy, and Mason coached from behind after graduation poached a handful of leaders and the core of Vandy’s recruiting class fell apart after Franklin left.
Staying relevant is now the most important goal for a team that could slip instantly in recruiting. Even with a challenging debut, Mason said his message to recruits hasn’t changed. He still believes he’s selling excellence at Vandy and can find premier athletes to help this program “rise above the rest and really be a powerhouse program.”
And what better way to generate some momentum than winning Saturday?
“I think that makes for a pretty good cocktail when you talk about parents and student-athletes looking for the best bang for their buck, in terms of the opportunity to compete and get a world-class education,” Mason said.
“We look forward to what the future holds, and the future starts Saturday.”