NASHVILLE (AP) — Derek Mason has to find a new starting quarterback and replace not only the receiver who rewrote the Southeastern Conference record book but an entire secondary.
That’s led to some grim expectations outside Vanderbilt. The first-year head coach can’t wait to get to work.
Mason said Wednesday that he believes they have bought into what he and his assistants are selling about opportunity and dreaming big. He has had his script for Thursday’s first practice of preseason camp ready for weeks and has talked enough with members of a unity council comprised of a handful of players to know they’re ready too.
“If I can’t believe my football team, who can I believe,” Mason said.
Vanderbilt is coming off consecutive 9-4 seasons capped with bowl wins and Top 25 rankings. James Franklin left for Penn State, and Mason was hired away from Stanford where he had been defensive coordinator. Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels finished his eligibility playing on a torn ACL, and receiver Jordan Matthews is with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.
Mason, who has 13 starters back, has six quarterbacks vying for the starting job, including Patton Robinette, who won at Florida and also finished off wins against Georgia and Tennessee. Stephen Rivers is in the mix too after transferring from LSU this summer. Mason said Rivers and his people reached out to Vanderbilt first after studying options across the country, and the coach can’t wait to see the younger brother of San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers.
“The door’s wide open. It’s anybody’s opportunity. Come and get it,” Mason said.
“I mean he’s worked extremely hard. When you see him, you’ll have an opportunity to see how his body’s changed from what it looked like at LSU to where he is here. He’s pretty confident about what he’s been able to do in a short amount of time. I think he’s going to be a great leader in terms of what it looks like off the field as well as what he’s going to try to do on the field to try to compete.”
Mason isn’t setting a timeline for picking a starting quarterback, saying all six will get work. They also have redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, junior Josh Grady along with freshmen Wade Freebeck and Shawn Stankavage. Mason has said a decision could go up to the season opener Aug. 28 when Temple visits.
“We’re trying to get everybody ready to play,” Mason said.
Once the Commodores decide who’s throwing the ball, they will need receivers to catch. Not only is Matthews gone, second-leading receiver Jonathan Krause also left. Sophomore Jordan Cunningham with 15 catches for 123 yards is the top returner at receiver in a very young group that also features Chandler Dorrell, son of offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell. Mason signed four receivers in February, and he said 17 or 18 freshmen could play this season.
Cunningham was recruited by Mason to Stanford before choosing Vanderbilt, and he sees a high energy coach who can push people to play their best.
“He’s a great guy, great coach, down to earth,” Cunningham said. “He’ll talk to you about anything. I think he’ll definitely have us going in the right direction.”
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker