It wasn’t the kind of debut season that Derek Mason or anybody at Vanderbilt was hoping for, but Mason already feels better about his second go-round as head coach because of the way he’s been able to restructure his coaching staff.
Mason announced on Monday that former Dartmouth assistant and NFL player Cortez Hankton would coach the Vanderbilt receivers, the final piece of the puzzle this offseason to the Commodores’ staff.
Coming off a 3-9 season in his first year as Vanderbilt’s coach, Mason fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators and also replaced his strength and conditioning coach. Of course, the move he made that attracted the most attention was naming himself as defensive coordinator. Mason said he was able to do that, in large part, because of the trust he has in the people around him and the way this staff fits.
“All these guys have one thing in common. They embody my vision for Vanderbilt football,” Mason told ESPN.com on Monday. “I can already see the changes paying dividends. It’s never easy when you make changes, but what you have to look at is the program and what it looks like moving forward. It didn’t look like good football last season.”
One of the most important hires any coach can make is his strength coach, and Mason jumped at the chance to get James Dobson from Nebraska. Dobson had headed up the Huskers’ strength program under Bo Pelini for the past seven years.
“The strength coach spends more time with the players than I do, so I needed to make sure that guy was truly reflective of me and had a personality similar to mine in terms of core philosophy and beliefs,” Mason said. “That’s what I found in James Dobson, a master strength coach who’s been in championship games and understands what that looks like.”
Hankton is among three new on-field assistants that Mason is bringing aboard as he looks to get the Commodores back to playing winning football. They went winless in the SEC during his first season and were held to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 12 games. Andy Ludwig will be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks, while Todd Lyght will coach the cornerbacks.
Ludwig spent the past two years at Wisconsin under Gary Andersen. The Badgers were 21st nationally this past season in total offense (468.9 yards per game) and rode Melvin Gordon much of the way. Their quarterback play was inconsistent, but Ludwig was still able to keep opposing defenses honest. The Badgers averaged 34.6 points per game and finished 27th nationally in scoring offense. Ludwig has also been an offensive coordinator at Cal, Oregon, San Diego State, Fresno State and Utah.
“I needed a guy who could utilize the talent and develop the quarterback position the way I wanted it developed,” Mason said. “I talked to everybody I could about Andy. He’s smart, articulate and been in a lot of different programs and has been able to adapt and make it work wherever he’s been.”
Lyght, who played 12 years in the NFL, coached the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive backs the past two years under Chip Kelly. Mason had tried to get Lyght when he was the defensive coordinator at Stanford and then again when he got the Vanderbilt head coaching job.
A big part of the restructuring is splitting up the secondary duties. Brett Maxie will stay on to coach the safeties, and Lyght will handle the cornerbacks. Mason said his decision to call his own defensive plays and coordinate the Commodores’ defense next season was really made for him after talking to several people about the job. He also said that having associate head coach Kenwick Thompson as his right-hand man on defense would make the transition even smoother.
“He’s a guy I strongly believe in, and he knows our system,” Mason said of Thompson, who will coach the outside linebackers. “I was already in those defensive meeting rooms. But for us to get to where we want to go defensively, I need to do more than just walk into those meeting rooms.”
Mason took on a much more active role in game-planning for the Tennessee game last season, and the Commodores had one of their better defensive performances in a 24-17 loss. It was after that game that Mason began to think that it could definitely work, his wearing both hats as head coach and defensive coordinator.
“We probably had too much defense in last season,” Mason said. “It’s not about how much defense you have, but how well you can execute the defense you have. As I talked to different guys about the coordinator’s job, they kept talking about playing a different style of defense. I didn’t want a different style of defense. I wanted our defense, and I wanted it to be what I planned for it to be when I first got here.”