I had the opportunity to sit down with Vanderbilt head football coach Derek Mason last Thursday. Here is the context of that interview.
DW: Coach, how do you like this 2017 signing class?
DM: Everybody wants to talk about winners and losers in recruiting, and I'm still trying to figure that out. If everybody feels like they got what they needed during recruiting then I think everybody won. Recruiting in college football is better than the NFL draft because in the NFL draft you have first round, second round, third round, fourth round, fifth round, sixth round, seventh round, but what happens is it's always about valuing those rounds. I look at college football, because you have so much more to choose from, you feel like every pick you take is a first rounder. You don't know how are going to develop, some guys may be second or third rounders, but you feel like, at the end of recruiting, you got what you wanted. And coming out of this class, we knew we wanted to get longer, more athletic, and when I say that I mean more explosive with that length, and just to keep adding to what we feel like we're building here on West End. So that's how I determined it. I could have gone in a lot of different directions in terms of stacking up on multiple positions. But recruiting looks a little different here at Vanderbilt. My first year I had to sign a class in a couple of weeks, and I didn't know what my needs were in the program at all. And any time you take on that, you're going to find that you you missed some things. You might find some gaps in your recruiting and that can cost you. So our recruiting team looked at the roster management piece in the last two years, how do we get our roster back in tact based on who left, any attrition that you have, and what your needs are moving forward. And in this class, offensive and defensive line were important. We had to address getting quality players on the offensive and defensive lines. We felt like we needed length at the receiver position and that's what we got. We felt like we needed to add quality to our offensive and defensive lines. At offensive line and defensive line, we feel like that's exactly what we got it. And with what we added at wide receiver, we got a couple of quality players. Obviously you're going to take a quarterback in the class to make sure you continue to build, grow and develop at that position, and Jacob Free (6'5", 200 high 3 star quarterback out of Brantley, Alabama), was a good get for us because he's a 3 sport athlete, whose best football is in front of him, because now he gets to focus and concentrate on one sport, rather than 3. I think the value of the 3 sport athlete in terms of awareness, skill set, and abilities, is something you can't coach any more because there's not enough time in the day.
DW: Coach, you seem to really like the 2 wide receivers you got.
DM: Yeah, I think they're tremendous gets. When you look at those two guys, what they're going to be, James Bostic (6'3", 202) has grown an inch and a half in the last year and he's a thick and strong receiver. He sort of reminds you of a young Dez Bryant in terms of his strength and his ability to be physical at the point of contact or the point of catch. He has a really good catch radius, he's a big target. And Chris Pierce (6'4", 200) is hopefully our Julio Jones of the future. He's somebody who's long, explosive, and he's only going to get stronger. A guy, who with good speed, is going to have good long speed as his strength continues to grow (house call stuff). You look at his ability to run after the catch, his ability to high point the football (jump over d backs and catch the ball), and again his tremendous catch radius (huge target), that all leads you to believe that as they start to put all the core football fundamentals of being a good receiver behind them, Coach Hankton (wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton) has got two guys who he believes fit the bill for what we want as we continue to move forward with. That's grouping them with guys like Kalija Lipscomb (6'1", 195 rising sophomore), Donaven Tennyson (5'10", 180, rising sophomore), and the group with C.J. (Duncan, 5'11", 203 rising senior) and all these other guys who have been here. They all have different skill sets, but when you jump into the toolbox and you look at Caleb Scott (6'2",202, rising senior) and what he's done, and you add these long guys to the shorter, more explosive, dynamic group that we have, I think the future's bright.
DW: It looks like a good group on the offensive line.
DM: Really is. You look at Cole Clemens (6'5", 285, solid 3 star), Bryce Bailey (6'5", 290, high 3 star), Jonathan Stewart (6'8", 292, solid 3 star) those guys are all guys that can play tackle. And when you look at those three and their bodies, how athletic they are, they're not big, fat lineman, they're linemen with great weight and mean streaks in'em, the future is bright. Then, when I look at Grant Miller (6'4", 260 solid 3 star), he comes from great stock with his NFL pedigree. His dad played for the Titans for 6 or seven years. And for him, he's 6'4" with a size 18 shoe, so he still has not grown into his body. You look at his hands, his hands are huge, huge feet. He's kind of like a puppy growing into his paws. He's got a wide back, big neck, big head, physically, and he's athletic. And playing at a program like St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale national powerhouse which just won the 7A FL state championship), he competed against some of the best in the country. He's been on a big stage. So for him, he's the smallest of the group at 260, as a guard, but he's so lean he can get up to 275, 285, 300, then you'll look at somebody who can play on the next level. He's tremendously explosive and really athletic. I like'em all. The other guys are tackles. Jonathan Stewart is the best athlete out of the group, but he's played the least amount of football. But when you watch him, athletically he reminds me of Andrus Peat (1st round, 13th pick of the 2015 draft out of Stanford, OT for Saints, 6'7", 316). I saw Andrus as a young guy because I know his dad, Todd Peat, really well. Just watching Jonathan, you watch his body, his mobility, his extreme athleticism, he's a basketball player, but the mean streak he showed and the ascending player that he was from the beginning of his freshman year, it tells you this young man is going to be a great football player. If you look at Jonathan as compared to Andrus Peat, you see his passion, his competitiveness in football, Andrus was an extremely passionate player, but was extremely quiet like Chris Williams (VU super tackle first round draft pick in the late 2000's), You're going to see that out of Jonathan. He's going to be extremely fun to watch.
DW: What about the rest of your class, do you like what you see out of Jacob Free, your d linemen and your secondary guys?
DM: Yes, you look at Jacob Free, Jacob Free (6'5", 200 high 3 star QB) is a 3 sport athlete and he's going to be a good player. Everybody talks about these recruiting classes, and what you're going to see from us that good players get on the field earlier and college football is a junior, senior sport. With that being the case, you judge classes on how they play. Jacob Free is going to be a down the line player. His best football is in front of him, but he still has some football nuances at the quarterback position that he needs to brush up on. He's going to get stronger and learn the system, that's just part of it. When you look at where we are on the defensive line, a lot of people don't know about Jonah Buchanan (6'3 1/2", 285), and that's OK because you start looking over on the island (Hawaii, where Jonah is from), you don't know those players, but he's one of those kids who is a diamond in the rough. He's extremely athletic. He played from a 3 point (d end), a 2 point (d tackle), he moved all over, backer, line, and I just think when you look at that frame, that size and that athleticism, that's what you want to go with in interior players. Guys with length, he's 285 pounds right now pushing his way to 300 real fast, and he's gonna remind people of Nifae (Lealao, upcoming, senior, 6'5", 312, great ability, 4 star out of high school), that's just where I see him. And when you look at Dayo (Odeyingbo, 6'6", 260 defensive end, high 3 star), when you look at Jalen Pinkney (6'3 1/2" high 3 star d end), Stone Edwards (6'4", 240 solid 3 star d end), when you look at those 3 guys, they're 3 pretty good players. Two of those have brothers on this team (Dayo older brother Dare, d end, Jalen, older brother Jared, tight end, both excellent players), Dayo is 260 now and who knows where his body is going to take him because every time we see him, he gets bigger. He's 6'6", he's long, he's athletic. I've seen those body types before. I'm hoping he'll come in here and be a contributor as a freshman. And play opposite of his brother, which would be good. I don't see him as a day 1 starter, but I see him playing a lot his freshman year because he's ready. With Jalen and Stone Edwards, you see two players who can pass rush. Stone can move up and down the defensive line because his body is going to continue to grow. Stone comes from great pedigree. His brother played at South Carolina and played in the NFL for 12 years. And you look at his father, and his father is a big man. His older brother has the same body type and they play similar. So as I look at Stone, he'll have to play early because of depth on the defensive line, and he'll grow into what we need him to be over time. I'm excited about him. And between the linebacking corps and the secondary, these guys are going to be explosive. You talk about Michael Owusu (6'6", 210, solid 3 star) the big outside backer from Oxnard (CA), played at Oaks Christian. I had a chance to see the two brothers, one plays for the Jets, and Frances is a senior at Stanford, and you talk about athletic genes, his other brother played at Harvard. He comes from great pedigree. His father was an Olympian sprinter for Ghana, his mother's Polynesian. This young man is going to be a player for us. All the brothers are big and he's going to be big. His athleticism for a first year outside linebacker was phenomenal (as a player in high school). Every game you saw him continue to grow and get better, and his athleticism is off the table. I can say the same thing for Feleti (Afemui, 6'3", 222 solid 3 star backer) , Dimitri (Moore, 6'2", 195 high 3 star early enrollee). When you look at their film, they jump off the charts. They're strong, they're fast, they're athletic. And one other guy people don't know about is Brayden DeVault-Smith (6'3", 205 LB). I talked about him being the last player in the class. He's 6'3", 205 pounds and he's a great athlete. This young man is going to be special. He may have been the last take in this class, but sometimes the last take is like Jordan Matthews. They have a way of working themselves out.
And then in the secondary, we felt like we got better all the way around. We got length at corner. Randall Haynie (6'0", 180 high 3 star) is a true 3 dimensional cover corner, who can run, hit, and has ball skills. Then you look at Allan George (6'2", 180 solid 3 star) he's long, he's explosive, he's got a 42" vertical jump ( 3 feet, 6 inches), he can jump out of a gym and has tremendous ball skills. So he's also a great kid and a great addition. Then Tae Daiey (5'11", 175 solid 3 star safety, early enrollee) is just impressive every time he steps on the field. He's fast, he's explosive, he's long and he has extremely high football IQ. He's from a great football program (Northside, Warner Robins, GA), he's won titles and championships. If you go back and look at this group, then you understand what we're doing in recruiting. It's not about stars, it's about winners coming from winning programs, and hopefully infusing that reputation into winners for us. Because you don't have to teach winners to be winners.
DW: I know you're excited about Ke'Shawn too. (Ke'Shawn Vaughn, 4-star transfer running back from Illinois, 5'10", 210).
DM: That's the Christmas player that came just a little late. I'll tell you what, I think I signed the best back in this recruiting cycle in the SEC. We got better just there alone. We improved in this recruiting class as Ralph, Khari and Jamauri look to take the field this year, you're replacing them with a known commodity. He stepped up as a freshman in the Big Ten. The Red Mamba as they call him at home. He's a 3 dimensional back. He can run between the tackles, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and he's tremendous in pass pro (blocking for the quarterback) Any time you can find an every down back, that's what you saw with James White (Patriots), those guys are hard to find.
DW: They're rare commodities those guys?
DM: Well you look at Ezekiel Elliott. How many Ezekiel Elliotts are there? You look at Ke'Shawn, his style is like Ezekiel. He's physical, he can run away from you, he can run through you. Coming out of high school, what you saw him do in the Big Ten was phenomenal. He showed all the same attributes that he showed out of high school. To do it on that level, on that stage, it says a lot about him. He's a humble young man, he's going to have to sit a year, but he's looking forward to learning, getting better, getting stronger with Coach (James) Dobson, and making whatever contribution he can to this team. We got better. We may have the best scout running back in the country.
DW: Coach, about the present team, what's the spring schedule?
DM: Spring starts on the 27th (Feb, Monday), we'll end spring ball on the March 31st, a Friday. We're milling around a spring game. We might not play a spring game just looking at our schedule and where we're at. We have graduated 27 guys out of this program, so we need to manage our roster, because everybody is trying to get to August. But we'll see. It's not out of the picture. Right now, I won't know anything till I get into the end of spring.
DW: What do you think about this group coming back?
DM: We've got experience. There are 9 returners on defense, 7 on offense, and those are the starters, those aren't just the returners. The thing that we have is a team that's game experienced, and hopefully 2016 was a launching platform for this group. And I'm going to let their work lead me towards my expectations for them. Because I think every year you don't know what you have until you're in the midst of it. Who gets you to August. Spring will give me a look at the tools that we have and fall camp gives me a full idea of what's at our disposal defensively, offensively and at special teams.
DW: How special can this team be and what will it take?
DM: I believe every team has greatness in them. That greatness has to be manifested in the work we do both on and off the field. The leadership that grows in that locker room, and really that team's commitment to winning. What does that look like? Because i can't give you what's not inside of you. I can't give you what you don't have. Those things come from the leadership, to the commitment, to the goals and focus of this team, I can provide leadership off the field, but what happens between the white lines is between player to player.
DW: You like the makeup of this group?
DM: I love the makeup of this group. There's no doubt now going into my fourth season, this group kind of looks more like me. This team looks like me and is going to take on my personality and it' gotta do more than take on my personality to win games. We've gotta be flawless in execution and consistent in terms of our play. If we can do that, not beat ourselves, and continue to grow in key areas, we're going to be a good football team. And those key areas are getting turnovers, having the ability to stay on the field and have explosive offensive plays because you saw what we were able to do in the redzone on both sides of the ball.(No.1 on defense nationally, No.2 on offense last year). But you've got to continue to get better at the things you didn't do well, which is consistent protection of the quarterback, or being able to get off the field on 3rd down. We've got to play the ball better in the secondary (interceptions). Those are things that are all there to be had, but it's all about the works that has to be done by these young men and our coaches to make sure we can go to where we want to be.