Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
I really want Mason to succeed at Vandy. He plainly loves the place; he does things the right way; his players adore him and play hard. And yet...yet, going into his sixth season, things just have not clicked in Nashville. The offenses in particular have been woeful. Only a three-game winning streak against Tennessee and a few barely-bowl-eligible seasons are keeping this seat less scorching than it should be. But, after five full years, there are no more excuses that can be made. It’s time to win or hit the door — and with a new AD, that probability is much more likely.
On the offense, led by a trio of Senior standouts and new OC Gerry Gdowski
Gerry Gdowski will be our new offensive coordinator, and Gerry has a great understanding of our system, our talent, and my expectations. I think he’s an ideal fit to move this offense forward.
Our offense will feature the dynamic trio of running back of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, tight end Jared Pinkney, and wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb. These three are proven in this conference and deserve your All SEC vote. Collectively all three men came back for the final season to finish their degrees, improve their craft, and lead this team.
Gdowski will run one of the more conventional offenses in the SEC, and being a product of Nebraska and Frank Solich, expect Vaughn (former B1G Newcomer of the Year) to be the identity of the offense:
Ke’Shawn proved, when he stepped on the field a year ago, that he’s one of the best backs in the country. He’s a three-dimensional running back who can run, block, and catch. I mean, he can do it all.
The Commodores know they need to get more athletic on defense, and do so quickly. VU uncharacteristically turned to the transfer market and got back to basics on defense:
Defensively, we’re bigger, longer, deeper, faster, smarter. I expect this year to improve in Jason Tarver’s second year as coordinator. We have numerous returning players who saw significant playing time last season. We expect all of them to make great strides this fall. Since the bowl game, we’ve emphasized tackling, stopping and run, third down efficiency and red-zone efficiency. These areas continue to be a point of emphasis for this defensive unit.
We’ve also added veterans to our roster including wide receiver, returner, Justin Shelton-Mosley, offensive lineman Rowan Godwin, quarterback Riley Neal, quarterbacks Donte Williams and Cam Watkins, defensive lineman Eddie Zinn-Turner, Brandon Maddox and Malik Langham, outside linebacker, Lashawn Paulino-Bell, and Scott Meyer.
These additions make this team deeper and provide much needed maturity in game experience in key spots. Our conditioning staff lead by James Dobson has done a fantastic job this offseason. We have seen unbelievable gains in strength, size and speed. James and his staff continue to create greater intensity, consistency and culture within our program.
Vandy also hired away Auburn’s RB Coach to get the max productivity out of Vaughn and the deep backfield behind him:
Now, as for Tim Horton, you talk about acquiring Tim from Auburn as our running backs coach, let me tell you, there’s nobody more excited about Tim Horton than Ke’Shawn Vaughn. He knows who he’s coached. He’s know who’s been around. And I thought it was special, magical, to see those two work together as we went through spring.
Alone among the coaches, Mason has been unqualifiedly pleased with the transfer portal in relation to grad transfer students:
The transfer portal, for us, it’s difficult at Vanderbilt University with the academic standards, being the way they are, to look at a ton of transfer students, it really is.
But, you know, what we found is that when you look at the graduate transfer opportunity, that’s been spectacular for us. And that’s really what I’m looking for at different times, just to fortify a roster with guys who have played ball games. And I need that. You know, when you can bring in guys who have had close to 150-plus cumulative starts wherever they’ve been, that’s experience that you can’t buy.
So, for me, being aggressive and having something to offer at Vanderbilt in terms of a graduate degree I think is something that’s attractive to an undergraduate student who’s exhausted some of his eligibility. With that being said, that’s where I see that.
Mason also promised that the offense would be the one to carry this team in 2019, despite losing Kyle Shurmur. With three returning OL starters, and a grad transfer with 30+ starts, the line play should finally match the skills guys.
Finally, on Mason’s close relationship with Kirby Smart:
With Kirby, I love Kirby, Kirby and I, you know, have a -- have, you know, a lot of defensive background, a lot of defensive history, a lot of things that we like that are very similar. So for us, we had a chance to spend some quality time with the Nike trip down to Mexico. And, to me, he’s like a brother. I mean, you meet people sometimes and you realize, man, that you got a lot in common, some of the goals. You see football the same way.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Coming off its first 10-win season in 41 years, Kentucky is looking for answers to replace Benny Snell and DPOY Jonathan Allen. Not an easy task, though the OL is veteran and physical and QB Terry Wilson has a full year under his belt — to go along with continuity on the coaching staff.
On Benny Snell:
Benny Snell is a hard guy to replace I think mostly because of his competitive nature and his desire and his drive, fantastic player for us, but we have really good options at running back. It’s now time for guys like A.J. Rose to step up. Kavosiey Smoke is a young guy that we are very high on. Chris Rodriguez, so we have players there that are ready to step up and fill in.
While Kentucky is solid in the middle of the defense — interior DL through the linebackers, the secondary is a tremendous question mark, especially on the outside:
Obviously, we’re inexperienced on the corners, at corners and outside linebacker. Josh is a hard guy to replace. I know people were asking me that. You don’t replace him with any one guy. Jamar Watson, Boogie Watson, is a heck of a football player. He’s going to do a heck of a job. He played a big role for us a year ago, but it’s going to be a group effort, a team effort. So very pleased with the work that our team has done. They’ve had a great offseason. This group is hungry.
Finally, someone asked about beer in stadiums, and specifically if football would be part of any discussions about service in Commonwealth.
Thanks a lot, Nick. No, I have not been a part of that. That’s above my pay grade, and I’m really worried about winning football games. So I’ll leave that.
Stoops also addressed the elephant in the room too: preventing point-shaving following the advent of legalized sports gambling. Many of these students come from much poorer backgrounds than an average college student:
You had to have those conversations before it went legal as well because, you know, gambling can trickle into these student-athletes. Let’s face it. We have an awful lot of student-athletes throughout the country, and you know, there’s things out there that you have to warn them against and you have to educate them on. And, yeah, I think it is important to continue to help educate our student-athletes on that.
On the transfer portal, where Mark Stoops emphasized the humanity of permitting transfer waivers in some cases, but at the same time took Nick Saban’s free agency and accountability language and ran with it.
I think it is difficult because, as I said, there’s a lot of good reasons. When kids need to transfer, there’s very good, solid reasons for that to happen. I think the human side of myself and everybody understands that and wants to support that.
When it gets to total free agency, I think we all are a bit concerned about that. And, again, you get criticized, you know, either way you stand on that. You want to be human. You want to help kids. That’s what we’re here for. That’s why we’re in this business. But part of that is also being hard on kids and disciplining kids and helping them be accountable when they don’t necessarily want to, you know?
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Every 3 or 4 years, Auburn tosses together a solid running back with a transfer QB, some serviceable wide receivers, and throw them all behind a veteran, talented offensive line. The result is usually a 10-win season, a home win against Alabama and/or Georgia, contention for the SEC West, and a nice bowl game.
Last season was not such a year. And, when The Boog Formula (TM) isn’t on-track, then the Tigers are just another 8-5 SEC team. That was last year’s Auburn squad — just another conference team. Though a thorough beating of Purdue in Music City helped, Malzahn comes into 2019 with a positively white-hot seat under his pleated khakis.
On the offense, which now has a veteran OL group and a deep stable of running backs:
Talking about this season offensively, our big question is is our quarterback situation. Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix, two freshmen fighting for the position. Both of them are very athletic. They can create things when things break down. They have big-time arms. Both of them are really hungry for the job. We’ll figure out in fall camp. We’ll name a starter and figure which of those two guys gives us the best change of winning.
Our running backs are all back. In our league, you can’t have enough running back depth. Kam Martin and Boobee Whitlow are really the veteran guys of that group. Offensive line, all five starters are back. They are five seniors. They went through some growing pains last year. They got beat up. They kind of got an edge about them. They went through spring against our defensive line and really held their own. They got something to prove, and I feel really good about that group.
Quarterback is still up in the air — and several will probably play. But, aside from Cam Newton, QB is simply a fungible position at Auburn. This team will be a run-first, physical offense with Gus calling the shots.
The defense is deep and veteran up front and in the secondary. Where there are problems are in the linebacking corps, where Auburn has had difficulties maintaining an elite unit since Tuberville’s departure:
Our linebackers, we did lose four seniors that were outstanding players. We feel like we’re really in really good shape with the leadership of K.J. Britt and Chandler Wooten. We really don’t think we’ll miss a beat at the linebacker position. In the secondary, we have them all back but one and really the three seniors that are leading the way is Daniel Thomas, Javaris Davis and Jeremiah Dinson. They have some big game experience and very confident group, had an outstanding spring.
On the obvious “win or you’re fired”-mandate that he seemingly always faces:
You’re the only coach left in the league that’s beaten Nick Saban. You just rattled off all of the championships you’ve been a part of. You guys have a lot of success at Auburn. Yet it seems every other year, if you guys slipped to eight wins or whatever, there’s talk about your job being in jeopardy. It’s make or break, do or die, whatever cliche. How do you deal with that? How do you manage that personally with your family, with your team, with recruiting?
GUS MALZAHN: I got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships. I knew that when I signed up for that. In the years that we win championships, it’s good. The years we don’t, it’s hot seat this, hot seat that. And I think out of the six years, four had been this same rodeo. And it’s just part of the job description.
And we expect to win championships. I’m very excited about this year. And you ask how you deal with it, that’s just part of being at a place that expect to win championships. Some places eight wins, they celebrate. That’s just not part of Auburn. We expecting to win championships and we’ve done that. And we’re going to have more championships in the future here, too.
On the offensive line, which are now seasoned:
To answer your question about the offensive line, yes, I do feel like our offensive line will be a strength. This time last year I think we had 16 starts between the whole group.
So you go through growing pains, and you do that in this league. And that group got beat up and a lot of blame and all this. And when you go through adversity as a group, you either fold your tent or you roll your sleeves up. That’s what that group did. They started playing good football probably the last quarter of the season last year. Played very good in the bowl game. And in the spring they held their own against our defensive line. They are a confident group. We can make adjustments. Real pleased going into the season with that offensive line.
On the role of the QBs in converting 3rd downs — last season, Auburn was successful on just 36% of its conversions.
Third down, especially in our league, is vital to keep drives alive. So the years we’ve won championships, I think we’ve been in the 40s. That’s definitely a goal of ours. You asked about the quarterbacks. I will tell you this about our quarterbacks. Our quarterbacks will be a run threat. And when you have a run threat at quarterback, it really does change things from a defensive standpoint. And from a play caller standpoint, it gives you a lot more flexibility, too.
Auburn has a new cringe-worthy motto this season, BTW: “Ride for the brand.”
Expect much more of that vintage 2013-2014 Auburn offense than the controlled passing game you saw in the past two seasons. And part of the reason is the identity of the team. But much has to do with the new signal-caller: Malzahn is taking over again.
Coach, I know you talked a lot about the difference between the offense you may have run last year and then you taking over play calling duties again this year. I heard you talk a lot about pounding the ball, really placed an emphasis on the run game, draw safety in, vertical over the top play action, how important is the intermediate pass game in the offense that you plan to run this year?
GUS MALZAHN: It really a lot of times depends how defenses are playing. In this league, if you’re going to win a championship, you have to be able to run the football effectively, and you have to get where they’re rolling an extra safety down, and then you got one-on-ones on the outside.
Our philosophy is run the football and throw it deep. And whatever the defense gives us, that’s what we should be able to do. That’s really the corps and playing fast. We’re getting back to really playing fast. You look back, I guess 2009, my first year at Auburn, we were playing fast. I don’t know. I think we were one of the few, if the only team, playing fast. Other teams were griping and all this. And now everybody is playing fast. Even the ones that had health issues and all that, they’re all playing fast.
Now it’s not the same advantage it once was. You got to stay on that cutting edge, and you got to evolve and everything that goes with that.
Finally, on the transfer portal, Gus concedes that some version of it is likely here to stay, but that it puts a strain on your roster management, and requires a much closer attention to the relationships you have with your players.
The transfer portal, I think everybody’s got an opinion, but I think the bottom is I think it’s probably here to stay.
The biggest challenge I think from a coach’s standpoint is roster management. And I really believe the teams that can manage the roster the best, it will be an advantage. That’s a big challenge. And any time the first year you learn, and I think probably every head coach in the country learned.
I think moving forward you’re going have to know about the heartbeat of your team. You’re going to have to be able to predict certain players may lead, may not. And then I think there’s something, too, about relationships, just having those real good relationships, those honest relationships with your players, their parents, and everything that goes with it. And I think the teams that can do that the best, I think they’ll have an advantage.
And with that, we conclude our in-depth 2019 SEC Media Days coverage. We’ll wrap it up tomorrow or this weekend, and get a headstart on the season.
Thanks for reading. Roll Tide.