After a three-day weekend and a little time to think on it, I keep coming back to the same thought on Derek Mason. When it comes to who they used to get and who they could have gotten, Mason is a good hire for Vanderbilt. But as we get into the stretch run of the recruiting season and Mason faces his first season in Nashville, the question of whether he will be a good head coach remains.
It's useful to remember that the two are not always one and the same -- and for a variety of reasons. Mike Price seemed to be a great hire for Alabama when he won 20 games over his last two seasons at lowly Washington State. But a disputed incident in Pensacola meant he didn't even make the field. And Ed Orgeron was quite the catch for Ole Miss -- until the results on the field told a different story.
The pure optics, though, are great for Vanderbilt. Without the success that Vanderbilt experienced under, it's hard to see a widely-admired coordinator from one of the better teams in a Power 5 conference taking a chance with the Commodores. Derek Mason was likely going to be a head coach someday, and probably with a better gig than Vanderbilt would have been in the wake of the Bobby Johnson-to-Robbie Caldwell fiasco. He didn't have to jump at the Vanderbilt job if he didn't want to.
That's in no small part because of Mason's record as defensive coordinator or co-defensive coordinator at Stanford, a school that faces many of the same issues as Vanderbilt when it comes to dealing with academic standards. Before the deal with Vanderbilt became official, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News tweeted that Mason leaving Stanford would be the "[m]ost significant personnel loss for Cardinal since Luck left 2 yrs ago." That's a pretty significant statement.
Mason was very, very good at Stanford, taking over as co-DC in 2011 and getting the job in full in 2012. There's only one possible dint, and it's a small one, on his resume. Keep in mind as you look at this chart of the Cardinal defense over the last three years that Mason, in the words of his Stanford bio, "works closely with the Cardinal secondary personnel."
Overall, Stanford is very good at shutting down opponents -- ranking either first or second in total yardage in the Pac-12 since Mason took over. And the rushing game gets nowhere. But when it comes to passing efficiency defense, Stanford is generally middling. Certainly not terrible, but also not great. In the one area where Mason's influence should be felt more directly, the Cardinal are simply above-average.
Which might not matter that much in the SEC East next year. James Franklin (MO), Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw are all leaving the division's top-tier teams. Even with the backups at those schools getting some meaningful snap, Florida might be the only team with a sure bet at quarterback, depending on what you think about Jeff Driskel. Running backs will be key to the division race in 2014, so shutting down ground games will be the best way for Vanderbilt to make a move.
At least one of the major recruiting services that ranks coaches -- don't ask me how they manage to do that -- doesn't indicate that Mason was going gangbusters at Stanford in that department, either. Whether that's a reliable measurement is anyone's guess. And it might not matter; hiring the right assistants could make a great deal of difference in the arms race, and Franklin showed that Vanderbilt can land top-tier athletes with the right approach.
All of which brings me back to where I started: Mason is a great hire for Vanderbilt. We'll have to wait until the fall, though, to find out if he was the right man for the job.