Vanderbilt's youth movement vs. the SEC's repackaged power game

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Can Vandy's defense shut down the SEC as well as its new head coach's Stanford D shut down Oregon?

The SEC's recent embrace of up-tempo offenses is something Vanderbilt coach and former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason has some experience trying to stop.

The problem for the Commodores' first-year head coach is depth, as former head coach James Franklin raided the 2014 signing class on his way to Penn State. That will create an even steeper curve for Mason's implementation of the Stanford defense to the SEC, as he plans on using as many freshman bodies as possible.

"The biggest addition to our program will be or incoming freshmen," Mason said at SEC Media Days. "We don't believe in redshirting. Out of that class of 22, we'll have 17 guys who'll play this year. When you look at the limited number of guys you have, you have to find a way to take the pressure off your top guys, in terms of having to play 98 snaps, that's tough. Having our freshmen on campus shows us that we can look forward to those guys stepping on the field. If you look at my history, I've never hesitated to play freshmen. The only way you get better is to play the game. Let's look at how it goes across the board."

At one point Mason was left with only nine commitments and less than a month to fill out his class. Despite Franklin's staff taking the core of the 2014 Commodores with him to Penn State, Mason said he wouldn't support any kind of early signing day legislation at the league or NCAA level that would prevent coaches from raiding recruits in January or February.

"The pressure provided us an opportunity, and we got to see what we could do. We went across the country to places where we had ties and were able to solidify a really strong class. In my mind it helped me to understand that what we were doing is right, that we were bringing in the right kind of players for our system," Mason said.

While at Stanford, Mason was best known for his ability to consistently slow down the Oregon offense and twice knock the Ducks out of the national title picture. In his last two years at Stanford — his only two as sole defensive coordinator — Mason went 2-0 against the Ducks. Oregon averaged 49.4 points per game in the Pac-12 in those two seasons, but only 17 points per game in its meetings against Stanford. The carnage wasn't limited to Oregon, either. The defense systematically shut down other top offenses, including UCLA last year.

Mason admitted that, just like vs. Oregon, he'd been studying the league's up-tempo offenses.

"Between my iPad and my phone, you can find me tinkering. This conference is talented across the board. From quarterback play to skill players to both sides of the ball," he said.

"Seeing the advent of the spread and what Chip Kelly did -- the Pac-12 was all West Coast football. Between Arizona, Washington State, Oregon, everybody went the other way. You had 10 teams that were all spread. All we saw was spread football. Trying to find ways to slow it down, to get a competitive edge, was what we were looking for.

"In the SEC, the packaging has changed. Auburn? The way they run the football? It's no different from Alabama. Run the football. Control the clock. Coach Spurrier's doing the same thing. Coach Miles. The game comes down to possessions and points."

The challenge for Mason is bigger in the SEC. He'll be facing even better competition with worse players. However, this version of Stanford was seemingly built overnight by Jim Harbaugh, and if there's anyone who can set up defensive schemes to shut down the SEC better than any other outsider, it's Mason.

"I don't care about the two- or three-stars when I'm out there. Look at a guy like [former Vanderbilt receiver] Jordan Matthews. What was he, a two-star player? Richard Sherman, did he even have a star?"

Kevin Trahan contributed to this story.

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