A "Cardinal Conversation" w/ Derek Mason (#2)

Here is the second segment of our extensive conversation with Stanford's first-year defensive backs coach, Derek Mason. Read on to hear what the Stanford secondary can do to improve in 2010 and learn about the essential attribute of hip fluidity, the decision to move Michael Thomas to free safety and the remaining upside of the ever-intriguing Delano Howell.

"A Cardinal Conversation w/ Derek Mason" (Part 2 of 3)

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 2" of our three-part conversation.

The Bootleg: Coach, we were talking earlier about "finishing". We know there will always be some missed tackles - you're okay with that as long as there are several other guys waiting to light up a ball-carrier?

Derek Mason: That's right. Football is not about being perfect. That does not mean you don't strive for perfection. Football is a game of minimizing mistakes. The team that makes the fewest mistakes usually has the best opportunity to win. In the secondary, you are out in space, you're going to get exposed. You are going to get shot. (Laughing) I never saw a Western movie in which somebody didn't get shot! That is part of the game. When you are out on the corner or in the middle of the field, sometimes you are gonna get beat! That doesn't determine, in my mind, the outcome of the war. There are 60-70 battles going on throughout the game. One conflict is not going to beat you. You have to make certain that you win more than you lose! That is a mentality and a way of thinking we hope was embraced by the guys in our Stanford secondary this spring. We saw some great strides made that culminated in the spring game and we hope to continue to move forward from there.

TB: Let's talk about that. What "constructive criticism" can you offer after having seen film of last year's secondary at work? Are you working on teaching our defenders to select better angles, is it learning how to respond better after getting beaten on a play?

DM: The things that you mentioned, we want them all. I look at the past season, not as much to critique how they played, but to find out what things affected their play. You can always tackle better. You can always clean up your footwork and find better angles and get more guys to the ball. You can always create more turnovers. Regardless of what happened last year, that's always the emphasis. Better angles, better footwork, better tackling, more guys to the ball, better finish. These are the same things that I came in preaching and they are the things we will build our foundation upon here at Stanford University. They will be the same things kids hear until they decide to replace me. 

TB: There are some technical issues that are relatively easy to correct. For example, knowing how far to start off the line in press coverage? But for dramatic improvement, it seems like you would need to make progress on having guys make better decisions, more quickly. Sometimes a guy is thinking about going for a hit or going for the ball and ultimately does neither? Part of it is simple reaction/instinct…But how can you as a mentor work on split-second decision-making? Are there specific drills?

DM: You can always drill, but what drills create are "muscle memory". It is the same with the process of "thinking". By drilling the scheme over and over again, you can indeed get them to make decisions faster. We are not talking just about physical muscles, but about the brain, the connective tissue that sends messages to the body to react. We want to create those scenarios and do them again and again and again (and again!) until we get the desired result. 

TB: Obviously long balls and big plays need to be contained better, but last season we occasionally got "nickel & dimed". We didn't always seem to recognize, for example, the quick three-step drops and be able to get up on short passes. That sort of recognition is going to come I assume from...experience.

DM: Yes, it partly comes with experience.  The first thing we did when we arrived, and I mean with Coach (Brian) Polian and Coach (Pete) Hansen, was to look at our spring cut-ups and we made a reel of every tackle, every missed tackle, every busted coverage and every missed opportunity defensively. We just went back and cut all those up so guys will be able to look at those specific examples while we give them insight on "why" it happened. It is so important to give them that specific information, that's something they hadn't really had before. "Missed opportunity reels". "big-play reels" with guys getting beaten on passes, creating "coverage teach reels" to allow the guys to be able to look at themselves and see how the coverage is supposed to be played.

TB: That level of extreme detail sounds like it is coming straight from the NFL!

DM: It is, obviously it is. I thought I was detailed before I worked in the NFL, but obviously gaining that experience has really given me some unique tools to utilize at the college level.

TB: You mentioned earlier that you are strictly limited in the time you can spend with the student-athletes. It sounds as if having that sophistication of review and extent of information preparation may be as useful to the coaches as the time you actually spend watching the players practice? 

DM: When people talk about character, which is "the sum of a man and what he does when nobody is watching".  We are talking about you, the player, creating your own habits, establishing a means for increasing your "football IQ". Being able to watch the film, hearing the critique, being able to key and diagnose problems and then being able to go out and apply that to what we do in live drill situations, then adding that to their summer work... that's what makes for better ballplayers. Guys hold themselves accountable. Teammates hold each other accountable. Then, when I am permitted to touch them again in the fall, hopefully they will have accumulated all of these things and it will have created strong work ethic and habits, reflecting the model of the type of secondary player we want here at Stanford University.  

TB: Everyone seems to talk about "fluidity of hips" – Can you take a minute to explain to the layman what that means and why it is such a sought-after commodity? When you are looking at prospects, that particular characteristic often seems to be a key factor!

DM: With "fluidity of hips" you are talking about the ability to "flip", to open your hips to be able to get "open" and run. Some of it is genetic, some guys have nice fluid, loose hips. For other guys it is something they have to work at. Now you can change things to a certain degree, but the bottom line is that if a young man has "stiff" hips, honestly, it's going to be hard for him to play in the secondary. It is the ability to transition effortlessly up the field, or in and out of a break. You need "hip fluidity" to be able to "mirror" a receiver, or to create power angles and be able to change direction.

The ability to open or flip hips is paramount to being able to play defensive back. That is why those guys make so much money in the NFL. The game has changed in terms of how you see defensive backs taken in the draft. It's clear how much great coverage guys affect college football.  A dominant coverage guy with great hips and the ability to transition up the field are priceless - you can't find them. They just don't grow on trees!

TB:  And how easy is it for you as a former player and experienced coach to recognize that key trait while watching a high school player on film? Can you tell literally within minutes whether he possesses that heaven-sent gift?

DM:  Oh, I know within five or six plays! It doesn't take long. Now, I may know within five or six plays whether he has hips, but I can't assess his "football IQ". When you see him for four or five plays in press coverage or man-to-man coverage, you can tell if he has the hips. But remember, it isn't just the hips, you have to assess whether a player has "spatial awareness", can he play the ball in the air, is he strong when he is down on the line of scrimmage, can he read the quarterback? A lot of those things allow you to transition quickly.   

TB: Since you are talking about specifics, can you give us some examples of guys on the current team who possess some of those essential qualities? Who's got hips?

DM: Michael Thomas comes to mind. Richard Sherman has fluid hips. Corey Gatewood has fluid hips.

TB: And what about guys with excellent "spatial awareness"?

DM: I think those same guys. From what we saw this spring, they are instinctive, they can react. Delano as well.

TB: You mentioned "strength at the line"...no problem there for Delano Howell.

DM: Delano is a physical, imposing player. He plays with a reckless disregard for his body. He likes the physical part of the game, but the part of his game that is really coming along and that will benefit him the most is how fast his "Football IQ" is improving. He is working at really trying to understand the game and increase his flexibility and keep himself injury-free. He will become a better player because he understands his issues and his weaknesses.

TB: Delano is clearly one of the Cardinal's intriguing players - his big hitting makes him a fan-favorite and can inspire the team. Coach Harbaugh has expressed confidence in his All-American potential at safety? With continued progression, can you see that high a ceiling for #26?

DM: Yes, absolutely. He has a yeoman's work ethic. He understands what it takes to be good. We are working to get him past "good" and get his mind set on being "great". Everyone wants to be like Michael Jordan, but not everyone can BE Michael Jordan. This kid is comparable to guys I see at the next level. He needs to be methodical like a golfer. He needs to make sure that when he approaches the game, he doesn't look to the right or to the left, to see what anybody else is doing. He needs to "play the course" the way it should be played. And then and only then, can he answer the questions about how he is playing the game. He needs to "play the course" and he'll be more than okay.  

TB: We have talked about the need to "make plays". In looking at the Stanford secondary, it seems to me that if we can find ways to create some turnovers, we have more than our fair share of guys who can do something with the ball. Sherman, Howell, Gatewood, Thomas, Yancy. If we get can get the ball in their hands, that should mean big trouble for the opposition. How do you get them to "make more plays"?

DM: You have to do your job. Sometimes guys try to do too much. You have to be patient. You have to play the game and opportunities will come. That's when good players can take advantage - when something happens and they can impact the game. An interception is made, a ball is fumbled. You scoop, and you score. It isn't about doing anything above and beyond your call of duty. It's just about doing your job. It is a saying we have around here. Don't worry about anybody else, just do your job. The the other 10 guys can do their jobs. If your job is to be a deep-thirds corner, you are not trying to drive the hitch, because we have somebody underneath that. If we get beat on a hitch and go, you didn't do your job. 

Football isn't hard. We make it hard. Most of the time when you see mistakes, it's when guys are trying to do too much. You know - "Well coach, I thought..." and "I was just trying to make a play!"... You know what, let's let the other guys make mistakes.  You keep weaving your web and they will get frustrated. Something will happen and we'll get a chance to get off the field. That's what I learned in working with Coach Frazier. Leslie Frazier and Joe Woods, are probably two of the best, along with Mike Tomlin, in getting guys to understand that when you reflect upon the season, it is only during the times in which we stayed "within" ourselves that we were able to overcome adversity. It is the times when we went "outside" of ourselves that things started to go bad. That's just the way the game is played.

TB: Let's talk a little coaching style and group personality. Are you a "focus & discipline" guy,  or are you okay with seeing a little "swagger"? Sherman and Gatewood play with a great deal of enthusiasm, they occasionally like to sport a little "Stanford Spirit"!

DM: I tell you what, I like all of that, as long as it doesn't take away from what we are doing. When it's about "team", it's great. When it is about "you", it's an issue! This is the ultimate team sport. Nothing is done primarily on your own. In order to get an errant throw, you need to get a pass rush. For something good to happen in the secondary, something good must be happening up front! It may be cumulative, it may be on a specific play, but nothing just happens because of you. The thing that we've been trying to get our guys to understand is that while all that talk is great, you are really going to know what you're about when you get hit in the teeth and now you've got to stand on your own two feet. Stop with all the pre-game bravado. Just play. Get your mind right, let's play!

TB: Do you believe in having your unit play with a "chip" on their shoulders? 

DM: There is no question. We want to play angry. We want to play mad. We want to play with an extreme nastiness. We want to be assertive and dominant. We want to be fearless and we want opponents to be fearful.

TB: But at the end of the day, to shut people up, they have to just get it done on the field ?

DM: That's right. But we want to impose our will. We want to be so physical that they are fearful. We want to make sure we play hard and give a dominant performance so that when they leave that stadium, there is no doubt that they were beaten...and beaten handily. That's the way we want to play. We will make some mistakes, but that does not mean that we are going to sacrifice what you call "swagger", what I call "confidence" You have to exude some pure energy and fearlessness. That is how we are going to approach it. And if it comes out as arrogance that people don't like, then so be it.  We want to channel it to where it is respectful, but if you don't like the way these guys come out and the way they "give it to you". And there are no grand illusions about this, we are gonna "give it to you", we are going to be feisty. People are going to have to take it! 

TB: So, clearly some players are better at run support and some are better at coverage? Do you prefer guys who have at least a general competency at everything and keep them in the rhythm of the game, or will you happily play a guy here and there in appropriate situations?

DM: Well, I never want to pigeonhole myself and say I'm only going to do this or that. Here is what I will say. We're going to put guys on the field who are "willing tacklers", who can execute, whatever the coverage, and who want to play the game they way we as a program, want to play it! Those things are non-negotiable. If you won't tackle... not that you are always going to be blowing somebody up, but you will tackle, you will be a willing tackler. We are not going to have any guys out there who are going to duck their heads or dive aside. That's not going to happen! They just won't play. I don't care what your skill level is like. What happens is that you would send the wrong message. This team is about a physical style of play. You can't say "we are going to negotiate on solid tackling because a guy can cover". He is going to tackle, cover and do everything in between! They are going to have all dimensions of their game in tact. Now, it may not be pretty all the time, nothing ever is, but do you care about "pretty" or do you care about "results". I'm more about the results.  

TB: What were some of the main considerations behind the decision to move "MT3" (Michael Thomas, another Bootleg favorite) to free safety? Was his height, despite his demonstrated vertical leaping ability, a meaningful disadvantage against some of the taller wideouts in the conference?

DM: No, not at all. Mike has exceptional corner skills. What you try to do, because Mike plays "nickel" as well, is put the football players in place that you feel can have the biggest impact on your football team. He's vocal. he understands how to communicate. Working with Delano in terms of communication, it is Mike's ability to make calls and get the information out to everybody. He makes calls with no fear. He understands what the defense is, he makes the calls and guys can get lined up. So when that guy is confident in what he sees and what he calls, then it makes the other players around him have confidence in what they are playing. Mike is a guy whose skillset as a corner is every bit as valuable to us in moving him back to safety. He is a fearless tackler, a confident tackler and a consistent tackler. When you put him back there at safety you're looking at a guy who has tremendous range, who can tackle in wide spaces, in short spaces. A guy who rarely misses tackles.

When you are looking for a guy to play free safety, who is really your "last line of defense", he came to mind because his ability to tackle, to communicate and his great range were all quite evident. Another dimension that people may not realize. Sure, he is great at corner, but if you are facing a third wide-out and they put a third wide-out in the slot, Mike can drop down and cover that guy. It is simply a matter of getting your best players on the field. Not about having 3-4 corners and not enough depth at safety. The move of Mike to safety helped other guys step up their games. Austion Yancy, Taylor Skaufel. Those guys have stepped up their game, thinking, "OK, where is this guy coming from?" "Why doesn't the coach see me like that? And I am like: "Show me! Show me you can do it and then let's talk!"

TB:  We know you'd like a strong three-deep at each position. But you're going to play the best guys out there, as opposed to playing a guy at his position just because he is the "second guy" listed on the depth chart, right?  

DM:  No, no, no. Stanford University is going to play the best guys! Coach Fangio and Coach Harbaugh have final say-so. We'll have those conversations. They want the best players on the field.

Again, a special thank you to Niall Adler of Stanford Athletics Media Relations for helping to arrange this interview with Coach Mason. 

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