As the Bryan Harsin era begins on the Plains, it will do so with a new defensive coordinator. as former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason takes the reins of the Tigers' defense.
Mason served on several college staffs early in his career before landing a job as the defensive backs coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 2007 to 2009. From 2010 to 2011, he coached defensive backs at Stanford before being tapped as the defensive coordinator for the 2012 season, a position he would hold for two seasons. In 2014, he became the head coach of Vanderbilt, where he led the Commodores to two bowl game appearances over his seven seasons as head coach.
After being released by Vanderbilt, Mason thought that his future rested in the NFL despite the numerous college job offers he was receiving. That changed when he got a phone call from his old friend Bryan Harsin.
“I think for us it was just so many things we connected on," Mason said. "Some of those ideas were philosophical; some of those ideas were just about life and ball and how we see family.”
Mason was also swayed by Harsin's vision, causing him to stop by Auburn on his way home to meet with Auburn’s new head coach.
“When we had an opportunity to talk, the conversation was very much to the point about his vision for Auburn, and that vision was set in stone — it was very strategic; it had all the makings of what I thought a good leader should talk about coming into a situation like this, which I thought was unique,” he said.
With Mason's arrival on the Plains, fans should expect the defense to look slightly different when fall rolls around. Mason likes to coach using what is known as a multiple defense — mixing up the number of defensive linemen and linebackers to take advantage of an offense. It is a very versatile defense and one that requires a lot of skill up front, but from what Mason has seen through the first few days he is not concerned with the talent of the Tigers' front seven.
“Coming in, we’ve got all different types," he said. "We’ve got big guys, we’ve got long guys. So like for me, it’s a nice smörgåsbord of players, man ... right now, I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”
While Mason may be excited about the front seven, it is clear that he wants to focus on the defensive backs.
As a former defensive backs coach, Mason cares about the secondary and sees that it needs to build depth this season. Smoke Monday will return, but Auburn lost several key contributors and will be replacing them with mostly inexperienced players moving forward — a major focus for Mason.
““I look at where we are right now and Smoke Monday is going to lead this group, there’s no doubt about that," he said. "At the corner position, we have depth. At the safety position, we need more experience. I think this group is going to be pretty formidable. What we’ve got to do is take it one day at a time.”
Anytime a new coordinator comes in and shakes things up there is a transition period that has to occur where the players try to understand the expectations and logistics of the coach while the coach tries to communicate to and evaluate his personnel.
According to Mason, the Tigers are still in that period of transition but the players are handling it well.
“I think it’s extremely important for these guys to really, you know, try to settle in to where we’re at. It’s about coaches meeting these guys where they are, and I think that started when we got here," he said. “I think for our guys just needed to get used to the language. I think it starts with language, OK, like an expectation of position play.
"Once you get past the language barrier I think football is really a universal language. I think for our guys, our guys have been receptive to some of the new terminology, just trying to simplify things where we can, but really trying to take some of what they’ve done and add it to what we do."
The makings of a smooth transition often come when the players know who their coach is and the players trust their coach. Mason is a coach who values the relationships that he forms with the players and it's clear that’s something he wants to establish as quickly as possible.
“You know, once you understand the why and you can establish trust, an opportunity to get them to grow fast and grow quickly is what’s needed for us right now,” said Mason. “I think that trust is reciprocal. It takes time on both sides but I think we’ve gotten to a good place.”
With A-Day right around the corner Mason will be looking to both develop and test his new defense over the spring as they mold into his vision for where the unit should go.
Mason has expressed nothing but excitement for this new era on the Plains and wants fans to come out on A-Day to both see how hard the defense has worked but to also help put players in a position where they experience the pressure of a game situation for the first time.
“I look forward to seeing you guys at A-Day … excited to be at Auburn," he said. "Excited to be on the Plains, and excited to be coaching this defense.”