A "Cardinal Conversation" w/ Derek Mason (#3)

This is the third and final segment of our extensive conversation with the Cardinal's first-year DBs coach Derek Mason. Read on to hear about his coaching influences, thoughts on the 3-4, his take on Alex Loukas at safety, on how the secondary will improve in '10, on the most challenging Card offensive players, and whether in his playing days he thinks he could start in his Cardinal secondary!

"A Cardinal Conversation w/ Derek Mason" (Part 3 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. This is "Part 3" the third and final segment from our conversation.

The Bootleg: Coach, how would you describe your personal preference for the design of the Stanford secondary? Are you from a particular "school" or does your approach draw heavily from any specific system or coaching influence? You talk about the stressing the critical importance of speed and attitude. That sounds like you might be something of a "Tampa 2" guy?

Derek Mason: (Laughing) "Tampa 2!". Well, I have been in 3-4 systems before and I have been fortunate and blessed to be successful as a secondary coach and am hopeful that it translates here. I have had great teachers, whether it was David Kotulski who was our defensive coordinator at Bucknell, who gave me my start as a secondary coach, or being exposed to Joe Woods and Leslie Frazier and having access to guys like Mike Tomlin and Herm Edwards. Really, it all goes back to Coach (Tony) Dungy. He and Coach Frazier are the best of friends. Mike Tomlin worked for Coach Dungy.

Obviously, along with Monte Kiffen, they created that great scheme. You have a lot of great secondary coaches, whether it's Dungy or Tomlin, Lovie (Smith), Edwards or Rahim Morris - all of those guys have come out of the same system. I have just employed the knowledge and the wisdom that has been passed down from those guys. For me, the last few years in the NFL those relationships shaped, molded, hardened my resolve, and established my philosophy as far as what I see and how I go about my job. 

TB: There has been a lot of attention given to the switch to a 3-4 under our new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, how much does that change things for the secondary?

DM: It really affects the front seven a lot more than it does the secondary. For defensive backs, your coverage is going to be your coverage whether you are playing a zone or man. It is not going to affect your technique, but it does affect where your help is going to come from. The 3-4 scheme was in vogue at one time and then it went away for a while and now it's coming back. Coach Fangio has been in the NFL for 23 years and truly understands the ins and outs. It provides additional confidence to our guys because we are going to be an "attack" team. Any time you incorporate a scheme that allows you to attack, it plays well to the group of guys on the defensive side of the ball because those are the kind of aggressive players that we usually end up with on defense. 

TB: One in-game scenario - The ball is in the air on a fade to the corner, under "the Derek Mason system", what are our guys taught to do, when should they turn, and time their jump? What are your "rules of engagement?

DM: I don't really have specific "rules of engagement" because I think every play or scenario is different. If a ball is in the air, what position are you in? Are you controlling the receiver and can make a play on the ball or are you trailing the receiver in what we call an "out-of-phase" position in which you can't afford to look back and now you have to try and play the hands and eyes of the receiver. Or were you out-of-phase, but have now worked your way back into phase and are you are wedged between the receiver and the ball and you can go up and play the ball. So that question is not that simple to answer - it is all based on the particular circumstances of the positioning. What I can do is keep putting the guys in those positions, where they are in-phase, where they are out-of-phase and give them a chance to practice making plays on the ball.

TB: Is senior quarterback Alex Loukas really in the mix at safety? That isn't a slight at all, just a concern that #5 is the only quarterback on the roster, other than Luck, to have taken a single snap in a college game…Is he really in the mix?

DM: He really is. I will give Alex Loukas all the credit in the world. He is a phenomenal athlete. He has got range, speed, size. He's got knacks and instincts. I mean, he made some picks in the spring that were just purely instinctual. He found his way to the ball and made plays. Those are not always things you can't coach. You can't easily coach an "inkling". Like when you are going one direction across the middle of the field and you get an "inkling" that a quarterback is going to come back the other way and you make a break and get to it...That is a ballplayer makin' plays.

TB: Those intangibles then are really why Alex is still part of the defensive picture. I am not doubting his ability, but big picture, we may need him at quarterback...  

DM: His playing defense only helps his ability on offense. We know he's competitive. If asked to play, we know what he can do. The thing that is impressive is that he can take that same competitive fire and move over to the defensive side and tackle and make great plays on the ball. That's hard to do. You don't just come over from quarterback to defensive back and say "I am just going to do this and do it at a high level". He has shown he can do that. It speaks not only to the young man's understanding of football, but to how hard he works. We asked him to change his body just a little bit, to help his flexibility a bit - because obviously he is coming off the knee injury. He has done that, he has re-shaped his body. By changing his flexibility regimen, he has improved his ability to "bend" and play on that side of the ball. He is not a one-dimensional player, he can play three positions, at wide-out, quarterback, and defensive back...in a pinch. That is a guy that is really valuable to any ballclub! 

TB: Now, don't take this negatively and knowing full well that it was not all on the secondary, we pretty much got worked over by Oklahoma and Landry Jones in the Sun Bowl, giving up 21 first downs by the pass…Without throwing anyone under the bus, what might you have done differently, as a coach or even as a player? Would you have doubled up on Ryan Broyles at some point? 13 catches, 156 yards and three TDs! Wouldn't it have been better to have seen if someone else could beat us? In fairness, it is easier to second-guess than to coach, right?

DM: You know, I think it is awfully hard to comment on anybody else's work, because I don't know exactly what defensive schemes they were employing....I have looked at the games and I've made some deductions. But when you watch something that you were not a part of and you start to make general assessments... I think it is tough to say what they did right and what they did wrong. Sure, obviously there were some plays given up that they would like to have back.

TB: And I guess in fairness we need to give more credit to Broyles and other remarkable players like Notre Dame's Golden Tate, who admittedly were among the finest receiving talents in the entire country....    

DM: Yeah. Listen, you look over on the other side of the ball and they are football players too! They get coached and they want to make a splash as well. It doesn't take away from what the guys did this past year to say we want to do it a lot better in 2010! 

TB:  Fair enough. How do you feel about statistics? We surrendered 23 TDs through the air. The Cardinal only generated 8 interceptions (tied for fewest in the Pac-10), a ratio of nearly 3:1. Can you guarantee us with a "stone cold lock" that you will get that TD/INT ratio down to no greater than 1:1 this year?

DM:  (Laughing)  You know, I hate to make guarantees like that. It is not stepping out on limb or not wanting to step out on a limb.... I think that numbers can often lie. You have to look at the end result. You want to win ballgames. If making interceptions helps us win games, if tackling ballcarriers and getting out of third-down situations helps us - any of those vital statistics affect the outcome of ballgames. I try not to get caught up in the number of passing yards given up.... 


TB: That particular stat may in fact be the most misleading of all – Eastern Michigan was #1 in the country in "pass defense" (yards passing allowed) in 2009 and they went 0-12! Stanford was 110th out of 120 FBS teams, giving up 265 yards per game, but in fairness, not one single Pac-10 team finished in the BCS top 25 in "pass defense". What are the indicators you prefer to look at, what metrics are critical to you in setting preseason goals?

DM: As a coach, you have to be wary of numbers when you set goals. You can talk about yardage surrendered and points allowed or points created off turnovers. You want to be aware of those and you want to be great in those categories. The numbers bear out that if do certain things well, you definitely increase your chances to win, but the same goal every game is to win. However that gets done...It may be that we were able to get off the field at a critical time or we needed to change field position. It can often be the case that there were no turnovers, but we still won the game. Or we may have generated multiple takeaways, but we still failed to win.

TB: You don't need turnovers if you hold the opponent to "three & out" every time.

DM: Absolutely. But yes, obviously takeaways are important. We want to lead the conference in takeaways. You talk about the ratio being 1:1? We'd like it to be better than that! If you can lead the conference in takeaways, your chances of winning the conference are good. If you can be solid on third downs, your chances of winning ballgames are good.  If you look at critical game-changing statistical categories, if we can win the field position battle - and a lot of our guys in the secondary and the linebackers are involved in special teams. The way we play on special teams will be just as productive and critical to our success as what we do on defense! Tackling, creating turnovers, limiting return yardage - in my mind, those are the key things we need to do to be successful.

TB: If you had to guess, based on what you have seen so far, who is most likely to be the "most improved" player in the Cardinal secondary? For whom do you have the highest expectations for notable progress?

DM: The group!

TB: Have to admit, Coach, that's one mighty-fine answer! OK, y
ou've just come from several years in the NFL - assuming continued hard work and dedication, name a couple of guys from your current group that have a realistic shot to "play on Sundays"?

DM: Well, looking at the group, I have two seniors now and a third in Austin Yancy. A couple of guys have some distance to make up. Obviously Sherman has done some things here in the past, has made the conversion to corner. He has some tangibles, some size, speed. He's made some plays here. He definitely has some of the tools to be able to play at the next level, but hey, that is all still "tbd" ("to be determined"). We all know that there is a long time between "now" and "then".

TB: But now he has Derek Mason to help sharpen those tools, right?

DM: We are working every day! Every day is a day in which Richard aspires to be great. It is not just him, it's all of those guys. Sherman has the tools, but there are some other guys that will surprise some people next year. I'm not going to mention names because I want them to stay hungry and continue to work to make the most of their ability. We are all going to reap the benefit of the hard work and dedication these guys are putting forward right now.

TB: We couldn't ask for more. Now, thinking back to your own playing days, Derek - Do you believe that you, let's say as an upperclassman, would be able to "start" in this current Stanford secondary?  

DM: (Laughing) Oh, no question!

TB:Which particular attributes would have put you in position to do so?

DM: Really, I would say tackling, being a playmaker. And look, every former player likes to talk and reminisce about what they thought they were. I know I can say honesty that I was a relentless and fierce competitor. I had a hard time with being denied the opportunity to be the best. And that doesn't stop! I still strive to be the best.

TB: That desire must be what drove you into coaching, to be able to impart that attitude and help these young fellas succeed...

DM:  Yes. It is not about seeing if you can make a cookie out of cookie dough and I am not about being a magician and saying "wow, look at me!" I want to impart the knowledge, the wisdom - to help foster perseverance, the ability to overcome adverse conditions. They are learning that this experience of playing football is what makes and molds you into the future man you are going to become. "Adversity only gives us rewards when we can come to the other side".  If I can pass on that gift of understanding to these young men during my time and during their experience at Stanford University, then I have done my job.

TB: But you are saying they would have had a tough time bumping you out of the lineup!

DM: No question!

TB: Off the top of your head, from a defensive coach's perspective, who is the toughest offensive player to handle among the current Cardinal receivers and tight ends?

DM:  Just watching how hard he works, and it's actually two guys because I think you are going to give you your money's worth every time they step on the field: Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu. Those guys, they have worked extremely hard at perfecting their craft. I've seen changes just throughout spring, and there is nobody here that can tell you that Whalen doesn't work hard!

TB: All you have to do is watch him camped out catchin' balls from the machine after every practice!

DM: That is what I am talking about. He sort of reminds me in that respect of Ed McCaffrey in terms of his work ethic and how he finds ways to get open. It's one thing to play against an awfully "skilled" guy - and Ryan has worked to become "skilled", but he's also "crafty". He's got imagination to his game. He is a hard "stick" on every single play because he is going to keep fighting to the end of the play to get himself open. And Owusu, you look at what he's done - he has become better at the line of scrimmage in terms of his ability to get off press (coverage). You are going to have to have more than just a good press game to play him now!

TB: You mentioned the McCaffrey comparison, #8 may need to get himself a permit - he's carrying around some serious "guns" these days!

DM:  (Laughing) Let me tell you! I saw him the other day in passing - I had my daughters with me - and I tell you what, I looked at that guy and was thinking "Man, we could have used him in Minnesota!"

TB: You never know. Maybe Toby will put in a good word!

DM:  We'll see!

Once again, a special thanks to the ever-accommodating  Niall Adler of Stanford Athletics Media Relations for helping to arrange this interview with Coach Mason. 

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