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Vandy Defense Hopes to Double Down

By Matt Smith
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Vanderbilt is looking to improve their reputation through the defense.

Derek Mason’s slow but steady rebuild at Vanderbilt saw the Commodores reach the postseason for the first time in his tenure in 2016, as the Commodores improved from 4-8 to 6-6 in a season that saw Vanderbilt upset Georgia, Ole Miss and hated rival Tennessee.

By all accounts, 2016 was a success in Nashville.

However, the defense that Mason coordinates himself, a rarity in today’s college football world, took a step back, falling from 5.2 yards per play allowed in 2015 to 5.9, even with the presence of unanimous All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham.

While that means Vanderbilt may have left some opportunities on the table last season, it also means there is room to grow in 2017, most notably if the defense returns to its 2015 level and holds opponents to closer to five yards per play than six. In a 12-game season, a few decimal points become much more material.

The defense is loaded with seniors and fourth-year juniors. Vanderbilt could start as many as nine players who were on the team during Mason’s first year in 2014. The Commodores believe that that experience and comfort level with the schematics and intricacies of the defense should elevate their play this fall.

“With experience comes confidence,” senior linebacker Oren Burks said. “As the years have gone by, we’ve become more confident in the defense even though it hasn’t changed much. You’re able to play faster. It all adds up to performing better on the field.”

Mason is upping the ante with this group. Not just because he believes he can, but because his veteran players want it.

“College football is a junior, senior sport,” Mason said. “These guys want more. They’ve asked for more. It can be as complex as they want it to be.”

Complexity of a defense can be a difficult concept to tangibly measure for those of us not in the weeds of it. Mason offered some specifics on just how much of an expansion he hopes to incorporate this fall, which includes doubling the number of schemes he utilizes.

“Right now, we have about 12-to-14 different defenses in terms of the structures,” Mason said. “It’s probably going to grow to about 28 this year because these guys are ready for it. You’re going to see a different football team.”

Many defensive coaches believe that added complexity negates speed and reaction time because of confusion and hesitation. Mason doesn’t subscribe to that theory, especially at a school as academically rigorous as Vanderbilt. His players want to be challenged, and he’s there to do exactly that.

“The dimensions and the stress that I’ve put on these guys, it’s going to be an everyday deal” Mason declared. “In order for us to go to where we’re trying to go, it’s going to be about us making sure we have enough bullets in the gun to play football in this conference.”

Despite Vanderbilt’s history as an SEC bottom-feeder, Mason has rarely tempered expectations for the Commodores, a testament to winning 46 games in four years as defensive coordinator at Stanford - the model program for what Mason is trying to build in Nashville.

Entering his fourth year, Mason now has a roster with players who know his defense and his defense alone. Because of that, he’s doubled the playbook, raising the stakes and adding new challenges in hopes of a third straight season of improvement where it matters most: in the win column.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.