What defensive coordinator Derek Mason brings to Auburn football

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Derek Mason likely had his pick of jobs following his exit from Vanderbilt in late November for the exact reasons Auburn coach Bryan Harsin mentioned when he announced him as the Tigers' defensive coordinator on Thursday.

“Derek Mason is one of the best defensive minds in college football and his track record speaks for itself,” Harsin said in a statement. “I’ve always admired his ability to prepare his defenses and his approach with players on and off the field is outstanding."

Mason, in accepting the job, described Auburn as "a special place with special people" and said he admired "the school, the facilities, the traditions and the uniqueness of the community."

Here's what he'll bring to it:

Years of SEC experience

Harsin noted in his prepared statement that "having experience as a head coach in the Southeastern Conference is invaluable." Whereas he has none, Mason has a lot.

Mason spent seven seasons as the head coach at Vanderbilt. The Commodores didn't win more than six games in any of them, but that won't matter much in his new role at an historically far more successful football program – Mason knows the lay of the land in the conference.

“He’s become a good friend. Guy I have a lot of respect for in this profession," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said after Mason was fired in November. "They’ve always played so hard at Vandy. I’ve gotten to know him in the offseason and taking a trip with some other coaches and his wife. I know the future will be bright for him, because he’ll have a lot of opportunities moving forward because he’s a really good football coach.”

Vanderbilt Commodores head coach Derek Mason celebrates a defensive stop during the fourth quarter against the Missouri Tigers at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

A sharp defensive mind

Mason's first job at a Power 5 school came at Stanford in 2010 after three seasons coaching defensive backs for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

The Cardinal ranked 110th nationally giving up 264.8 passing yards per game in 2009. With him leading the secondary, that number improved to 202.9 (35th nationally) in his first season.

Mason was elevated to defensive coordinator on David Shaw's staff in 2012, a title he held for two seasons before going to Vanderbilt. Stanford ranked top-11 nationally in scoring and rush defense in both seasons, allowing no more than 19 points per game and 3.1 yards per carry.

He's considered the mastermind behind the game plan that held a pair of high-scoring, Marcus Mariota-led Oregon offenses to just 17 and 20 points, respectively, in back-to-back wins in the series.

All-Pro NFL cornerback Richard Sherman, who played under Mason at Stanford, described him as "one of the best defensive minds in college football."

“He was essential to my development and my understanding of the game,” he said in a 2016 interview with The Tennessean. “He taught me how to play the game, how to study the game, how to really go in-depth with your film study and also understanding your weaknesses — studying your weaknesses and what you do well and what you don’t do well and being able to self-scout a lot more."

Energy and passion

The results on the field at Vanderbilt weren't nearly as good. The Commodores ranked in the top half of the SEC in scoring defense just twice in Mason's seven seasons. The resources and talent level there is simply lower there than it is in the rest of the conference.

But, before a 2020 season where Vanderbilt dealt with mass COVID-19 absences seemingly week-in and week-out, no one would have ever accused Mason's teams of not playing hard for him.

His pregame speeches in the locker room and postgame interviews on the field – like the one he gave after an upset of Missouri last season – often went viral because of the passion and energy be displayed.

“He’s fired up every day. He’s a workhorse, and he’d go jump on (a cardio machine) three times a day because he’d never ask his players to do something he hasn’t done," said Trent Murphy, a former All-American linebacker at Stanford who plays for the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

"What I’ll remember is the motivational talks and speeches he gives. Sometimes they’re out of the blue on a practice day, but he always has something to say before the game when the defense meets. He’s right on the money and knows what we need to hear."

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.