A "Cardinal Conversation" w/ Derek Mason

The Bootleg's Co-Founder Jim "Emeritus" Rutter had the pleasure of chatting at length with Derek Mason, Stanford's first-year defensive backs coach, who joined the staff after three seasons coaching safeties with the Minnesota Vikings. Read on to hear the one-time Northern Arizona cornerback's views on the development of the Cardinal secondary as we head toward the highly-anticipated 2010 season.

"A Cardinal Conversation w/ Derek Mason"

On Wednesday, July 7, 2010, Bootleg Co-Founder and Editor Jim "Emeritus" Rutter had a chance to catch up by phone with Stanford 's first-year defensive backs coach, Derek Mason. The following is "Part 1" of an extensive three-part conversation.

The Bootleg: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Coach, your first experience with The Bootleg. M maybe we can start off by setting set the record straight and letting folks know you are NOT "Derrick Mason", the former Michigan State and later Baltimore Ravens wide receiver? Do you ever get mixed up?

Derek Mason:  We do! Our paths cross quite often. I don't care if it's with regard to a Reebok allotment, a Nike allotment, a dinner reservation, NFL functions. Yeah, I get that a lot.

TB: But you do have a superior spelling...

DM:  Correct. I am older and I have a superior spelling.

TB:  You had the chance in the spring to observe our current players, obviously without the incoming freshmen…What specifically did you learn and how would you compare the evaluation opportunity in the spring versus what you expect to learn in fall practice?

DM: With spring you are given the opportunity to evaluate talent, the ability to process football information and overall ability. Watching these guys, I gained a feel for each guy's strengths and weaknesses and was able to see areas in which we may be able to make strides. I sat down with those players at the end of spring ball and we were able to map out some goals for them personally and the position goals. They have to understand where they are at, where they have got to go, and what it is going to take to get them there. I learned from this group in the spring that they want to be good, that they're physical, that they study hard, that they are going to do what you ask of them. We just need to get more. We need more "physical" play, we need them to play faster, with more attention to detail and purpose. With those things in mind, that's what spring was geared toward and that's what we accomplished. 


TB: You were the "assistant defensive backs" coach under Joe Woods with the Vikings. As the "assistant", did that mean you had more time to work on developing individual players' technique, one-on-one?

DM: Yes. Actually, Joe Woods was the "lead" secondary coach and I was the "assistant" secondary coach. The way Joe and Coach Frazier [Leslie Frazier, a Super Bowl champion on the '85 Chicago Bears and now Minnesota's defensive coordinator] had it set up, Joe coached the corners and I coached the safeties. It was a split secondary job, but we overlapped. It crossed the lines as we did our preparation, drills, decided how we were going to scheme and gameplan different opponents. Titles are just titles. We did everything together. We worked hard and at the end of the day, his success was my success and it worked well.

TB: You played cornerback in college (at Northern Arizona), but most recently coached safeties. Is one position more natural for you to coach than the other at this point?

DM: Yes, I played corner and have coached corners in college, but now with my recent experience with safeties behind me, I feel comfortable coaching all four positions. There are two different skills sets - you're asking corners and safeties to do two different things. Now, in our system, we want all of our guys to be able to cover, be able to tackle, and to able to show good range whether you are a safety or a zone corner. The thing that is paramount is that each of those positions requires a different set of physical and mental skills. What you ask a safety to do in terms of his ability to key and diagnose when he is playing the run or playing the pass game. And then what you ask corners to do outside, just in terms of the individual matchups and the one-on-one space to work with in terms of being able to defend great wideouts in open space. You have to address the needs of both positions. That is why you see more and more staffs go to having two secondary coaches. You need one leader, but having two coaches helps because the skill sets are so different. 

TB: For you professionally, there has to be some measure of satisfaction in being in a position to mold and craft a complete unit with your own style and personality. Is that pretty fun for you?

DM: Sure, it's outstanding! That is what we all aspire to do. We all want to be able to hone our craft and eventually be able to have your own unit, to have our own mark, your own stamp. With the help of Coach Fangio, Coach Harbaugh and this defensive staff, we hope to be able to do just that.

TB: Help us understand the gap between college football and the pros…How would you compare the talent you have at Stanford with the NFL talent you had in Minnesota with the Vikings? How much of the gap is related to physical ability as opposed to experience and training?

DM: Well, when you are talking about the NFL, you are talking about "the elite of the elite" - size, speed, agility, all the physical tools, plus football IQ. All those things are relative to what we do here at the collegiate level. Mentally, the speed in college is, and please excuse the expression, "dumbed down" a little bit. You are not playing an Adrian Peterson or a Chris Johnson week-in, week-out. You are not facing a Steve Smith, even though you may be facing some great young receivers at this level. I think there is parity at each level. The skillsets generally match up to the level of competition that you play, whether you are in college or in the NFL. 

The "speed of the game" is the real difference, also the level of complexity and detail work involved - based of course on the amount of time available. In professional football, there is no time limit. In the collegiate ranks, we have a 20-hour a week rule. The time difference determines how much you can teach them, what you can give them to be successful, whereas in the NFL, it is, as they say, it's a job. That's what they do. You wake up in the morning and go into the office. Your "office" is an NFL locker room, You address any concerns you might have in your meetings. Your "workplace" happens inside the lines. You come back in, you refine things, you go back out on the practice field, and then you come back in and watch it again. It is an eight-hour day for an NFL athlete.    

TB: But in the NFL, with the material you have to work with, you are more "refining" them than "transforming" them the way you may need to in college because the pros are already coming in with strength and experience.

DM: That's a correct assessment. In the NFL what you are trying to do is get them to do is master the movements within your scheme and really "hone" their knowledge for what your team does. At this level, based on the complexity of what you see from week to week and with the time constraints, you have to give adequate time to strength and conditioning, and dedicate time to learning the game, assessing opponents, and being able to execute any type of scheme and job responsibility within a confined timeframe. There is far more to do here, no doubt, in terms of development.

TB: But "The Artist Known as Coach Mason" gets to "mold the clay" more in college.

DM Yeah, obviously you can experiment a lot more. You may not have time at the NFL level to do that. It's far more narrow and business-like. Here, I may be addressing the personal concerns of a young man as well as his concerns on the field. We're more concerned with the "whole person" as opposed to just the "football player". We all know that from age 18 to 22, it doesn't take much for a kid to get "off-stride". You make sure that you can affect the player and the human being. My own approach is to cover all dimensions, making sure I am accessible to these guys, whether it's film, technique work, whether it's general questions about life. You become more involved in their overall development, as a Stanford student-athlete.

TB: And is it fair to say that this additional responsibility was a significant factor in drawing you back into the college ranks?

DM: Oh, no question. I love the NFL game. I learned a lot in the NFL game. You never know what the future holds, but I do know this - I love working with 18- to 22-year-old young men who have a desire and a passion to play football. There is some reluctance at times, but it's still a pure game, there are no hidden agendas. You try to lay it out on the table and you ask them to do the same. You develop the trust factor, which in turn leads to the young men being successful as well as you the coach getting the results you need to have from the player, both athletically and academically

TB: Coach, sounds like you are primed to get out there and knock out some recruiting!
DM: (Laughing) Yes, recruiting has been fruitful for us so far and I think it's going to continue to grow. We're looking for a certain type of person, that not only fits the Stanford mold, but has the desire, the character, the sports-specific abilities to be able to play here at Stanford University because we feel like we can get "the best of the best". We're not going to settle for less than that.

TB: OK, so moving on to the 2010 team. Your group lost veterans in Bo McNally and Kris Evans, but you have three of the four '09 starters back.
How do you view the concept of "seniority"?  In the NFL, seniority generally doesn't mean anything...are you going to maintain a similar approach, that you have to earn your playing time every day?

DM: A similar approach. It's "king of the hill". We need to get out there on any given day and play and be consistent. If you are "king of the hill" and no one knocks you off the throne, it is yours to have. But to "give" anybody anything in this day and age is foolish. For me, what I have always tried to do as a coach is be fair in terms of allowing guys to compete. The guys who show that they deserve to be on the field, they are the ones who will play. It is not about potential or what was done a year ago. It is all about what's happening now. Because from one year to the next, you have to be able to stand on your own merits.

TB: And your players pretty much buy into that, don't they? You want your guys and the future players you bring in to share that same philosophy?

DM: No question, that is clearly the philosophy we have here. I let them know in our first meeting. I tried to set the tone that every year my job as a coach, and this has been empowered to me by Coach Harbaugh, is to bring in the best players that we can. That means going out and recruiting players that are better than the guys we have here. As a current player, the only advantage you have is the experience you have gained in the past year in order to help you move ahead - how to know how to diagnose certain situations, to have a reference point from having done it before. That experience is invaluable, but when it comes to ability, I am always looking to recruit talent better than what we have. 

TB: You have stated that every job in the secondary is open. Is that really true or is that just something coaches have to say to keep their players properly motivated?

DM: No, no, no. Any time there is change, you look inward first. The you start to put the other pieces of the puzzle together. You have to be honest with yourselves. You have to watch how hard guys work, evaluate them, see how they play under fire and then look at the results. That's the only way I know how to assess where we are as a program, where we are a particular position and how we can maximize our effect on this team. To do that, we have to get better. You have to open up every job and say "I've got four bones and I've got eight participants. Let's toss the four bones out there and see who is the last man standing!"

TB: You might want to incorporate that metaphor into an actual drill and literally toss some bones out there!

DM: Maybe so!

TB: So let's face it, we the hard-core fans, are looking for immediate dividends, coach! What stands out on 2009 tape in terms of areas in which you think the Cardinal secondary can make the most meaningful strides, and the most quickly? Is "level of intensity" one of those? Guys can never "relax" on the field, right? To me, it seems as though Coach Ron Lynn already had the players quite fundamentally sound, we didn't see a lot of problems with technique.  It now seems that you want to see a faster, more aggressive style of play - Isn't it high-time to create more turnovers?

DM: I tell you what, first of all Coach Lynn, he is one of the best in the business. I followed Coach Lynn for a long time and I have learned from some of his pupils. I think you are right in your assessment. In watching '09 film, I think the players were put in the right position, but what you have to do is be able to "finish". In any given situation, you have to finish - finish games, finish quarters, finish series, finish plays. The emphasis has to be on finish and results. The only way you do that is by putting these guys in those same situations, out of season.  Everything's about being competitive. Face it, in the game that we play, there is no ribbon for second place. You win or you lose.

With that being the case, there is something to be derived from a loss. We want to make sure that those equations are tallied in the off-season, not during the season. We want our style of play to be fast and physical while at the same time minimizing mistakes. When something bad happens, we need to accurately assess what happened - why did we bust a coverage? Was there a lack of communication? You have to determine what the problems are before you can get results. By placing guys in critical situations in which they have to think and play fast, you get a chance to see what a guy's deficiencies are and that gives you an opportunity to use drills to hone their craft in the offseason so that when they are facing live bullets, the stress level comes down and now the players can react and process and be more successful.

TB: You talk about "finishing". It is often discussed in coaching meetings and the players understand what you are getting at, but  help the fans understand what you mean. What does "finishing" mean ? Is that having lots of red jerseys on the ball at the end of each play?     

DM: "Finishing" means "having 11 guys in every picture". "Finishing" means having you be where you are supposed to be on every snap. "Finishing" means that if there is a ball to be picked up or deflected, or if there is a tackle to be made, that is what we do. If it's third down and we need to get the defense off the field, that's what we do. If we need to change field position through special teams, that's what we do. Every drill is set up with that "finishing" mentality in mind. If you are looking for a visual to explain what "finish" looks like - let's say if the ball is on the ground - is there that extra effort to get off a block and get to the ball and get it covered up so we can possess it? That's what we are lookin' to do. We want "finish"!  

Special thanks to Niall Adler of Stanford Athletics Media Relations for helping to arrange this interview with Coach Mason. 


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