Derek Mason is halfway through his first spring practice as Vanderbilt's football coach.
The former Stanford defensive coordinator was hired in January to replace James Franklin, who left for Penn State after guiding the Commodores to a 24-15 record in three seasons and three consecutive bowl bids for the first time in program history. Mason, who helped Stanford to four BCS bowls in his four seasons with the Cardinal and was a Broyles Award finalist in 2012, was a guest Wednesday on Press Row on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM.
Q: Your predecessor won nine games in consecutive seasons, the first time that's been done in Vanderbilt history. How many times have you heard the "big shoes to fill" question, and how have you answered it?
A: "I've heard it a lot. James, along with Bobby Johnson, definitely did a great job in recruiting in terms of making this program relevant, but what people fail to realize is that James is gone but the kids are still here and that those kids have won. Some of them have graduated and provided leadership as a good group of seniors, but our kids now understand what winning is.
"I don't worry about anybody else's expectations. Our staff has a pretty good idea of what winning looks like, and we're going to continue on our path of doing what we do and sticking to our plan, because we think we've got a good one."
Q: You had to salvage a recruiting class, assemble a staff and get to know a new roster and a new university. Do you finally feel caught up?
A: "If we're driven and want to be good at what we do, I think we look for challenges. It's a daily challenge to look at this program and assess where we are so that we can continue to lay the foundation of this program, and anything that comes our way that looks to blow us off-kilter, we'll be ready. Our foundation is strong, and we feel good with where we're at.
"I think we're caught up, so to speak, but we're trying to gain experience, and that's done one day at a time. There is still spring ball left and spring recruiting, and then there is summer planning."
Q: You've got two Chattanooga-area players in your program, [Baylor's] Barrett Gouger on the offensive line and [East Hamilton's] Tre Herndon as part of your first recruiting class. What are some of your expectations for those guys?
A: "Gouger is competing right now on a front line that is very competitive. It's a physical group. They're nasty. They work extremely hard, and he's a cornerstone of that. He has all the physical tools. He's very athletic, and he fits the mold of what we expect our linemen to be. I'm looking forward to watching Barrett's growth over the next five months, because I think you could see him anchoring down one of those positions.
"Tre is long, very athletic and is multi-dimensional in terms of what he can do and what he has done on both sides of the ball. We're going to let his skill set take him to where he needs to go. We recruited him as a defensive back. I think he's going to be an outstanding DB, and he has a dual skill set that will allow him to get on the field early."
Q: You came from Stanford and are now at Vanderbilt, two schools that are blending academics and football as well as anyone around right now. How much do you think the news out of Chicago in which Northwestern players can be considered employees and can vote to unionize will change just about everything as far as college sports?
A: "That's something that has been ruled in the courts, and for me, I'm going to stick to what I know. I know the educational value of being at Vanderbilt and the opportunity to play in the SEC are two things that can be done hand-in-hand and at a high level. What we have to continue to do is stress to our guys what this brand is, and how it can grow these guys from young men looking to be men. So that wouldn't change my responsibility as a coach or a mentor.
"It may change how the NCAA is forced to deal with student-athletes, but it doesn't change my operating procedures."
Q: With Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause now gone, is receiver your top concern?
A: "Any time you lose quality players like a Matthews or a Krause -- those guys provided production and value, and it's a void that must be filled. Right now, we have several guys trying to fill their shoes, but I don't think you can replace a Matthews or a Krause with one, two or even three guys. It's got to be a collective effort, and one thing we're going to push for is production out of the tight end.
"The model that I've come out of and what I've become accustomed to is an offense that has balance. We know we can run the football, and our ability outside will be predicated on a tight end who can open up the middle of the field and become a primary target."
Q: You retained one of Franklin's assistants, but your staff has a lot of West Coast flavor. What has you the most curious about delving into the SEC?
A: "Like anything else, there is a learning curve. Before I was in the Pac-12, I had coached at some smaller West Coast schools, so it was different once I got into the Pac-12. You adapt and adjust. You watch film and learn who your opponents are, and the big adjustments I see in the SEC are talent level and speed. Football is football, but the linemen in this conference are so dominant, and the skill is so pronounced.
"We're going to have to go baptism by fire, but that's no different from what James had to do. You have to feel it out and go game by game, and I think I showed at Stanford that I'm a pretty quick learner."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.