NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Vanderbilt has finished the past two seasons ranked in the Top 25. Now the Commodores are preparing for spring practice with a new coach in Derek Mason and trying to build off their recent success.
"I know that we have a football team that won and knows what it is to win," Mason said Monday. "This unit is a good football unit, they've won games."
Vanderbilt is coming off a second straight 9-4 season and finished No. 24 in The Associated Press' final ranking, making James Franklin an attractive coaching candidate. He left in January to take over at Penn State.
Mason was the defensive coordinator at Stanford for the past three seasons. Now he gets a chance to take a closer look at the Commodores when they hold the first of 15 spring practices on Tuesday ahead of the Black and Gold game April 12.
The biggest challenge for the Commodores is learning new schemes on offense and defense, where they are switching from a 4-3 approach to 3-4. It's a process coaches compared to trying to drink from a fire hose, and they want to know how quickly the players can master what is being asked of them.
"I've watched the film, I've seen them on tape," Mason said. "I want to match up the movement part and see who works (when we get out on the field). As of right now we really don't know what it all looks like, we just know that we have some talented players."
The Commodores have been impressed with the new staff. Kyle Woestmann is at linebacker now after playing defensive line, and he says he expects 2014 to be the best year of Vanderbilt football yet.
"I wouldn't doubt for a second that this is going to be the best year of Vanderbilt football has had and that more is yet to come," he said.
Vanderbilt has to rebuild the passing game. Quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels graduated, along with Jordan Matthews, the Southeastern Conference's all-time leading receiver. Fellow starting receiver Jonathan Krause also is gone.
Patton Robinette gained valuable experience last season at quarterback, leading Vanderbilt to wins over Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. He will be challenged this spring by redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Cunningham and junior Kris Kentera are the most experienced receivers.
Vanderbilt has its leading rusher back in Jerron Seymour, who had 716 yards on the ground and scored 14 touchdowns. The offensive line returns four players with plenty of starting experience.
Mason wants to develop depth on defense, especially in the interior. He hoped to rotate up to 27 players through different packages.
"I know this is the SEC, but as I've watched these guys move in some of the individual sessions, the ability of the guys up front to just move bodies, I'm really impressed," Mason said. "I think we're bigger than we ever were at Stanford, and at Stanford our reputation was for our ability to get off blocks and change the line of scrimmage. That's impressive to me, because that's what we want to build on both sides of the ball."