Vanderbilt's Derek Mason was the lone newcomer among the 14 football coaches at the recent Southeastern Conference spring meetings in Destin, Fla.
"I was the only undefeated head coach in the room," Mason boasted Friday as a guest on "Press Row" on ESPN Chattanooga's 105.1 The Zone.
Mason is inheriting a program coming off consecutive 9-4 seasons, and he will not be lacking for depth at quarterback following the announcement last week that Stephen Rivers has transferred from LSU. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Rivers will be a graduate student with two seasons of eligibility with Vanderbilt.
Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, redshirted in 2011 and played just four games the past two seasons as a reserve behind Zach Mettenberger.
"I think any time you can get a player of his caliber who understands what this conference is and has the skill set we are looking for -- I just think he's an immediate impact guy," Mason said. "As we went through the process and he went to programs and talked to coaches around the country, we hit it off, and he understood who we were and what we wanted to be. It's great to have him on board."
Mason, who will be at the Chattanooga Golf & Country Club on Tuesday as part of the Commodore Caravan, confided in new Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, who worked with Philip Rivers in San Diego and knows the family well.
When the Commodores convene for preseason camp and begin preparations for their Aug. 28 opener against visiting Temple, there will be six quarterbacks vying to start -- Rivers, Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary, Josh Grady and freshmen Wade Freebeck and Shawn Stankavage.
Robinette and Grady were the lone quarterbacks who played last season once Austyn Carta-Samuels suffered a knee injury. Robinette and McCrary were the only ones to go through spring practice.
"It's probably going to head into the better part of two weeks, but I don't know if we can give six quarterbacks reps doing it that way," Mason said. "You want to see who can handle our install and our game plan when we put them in competitive situations in those first two weeks to get a first take. We're going to start with six and then whittle it down in the first couple of weeks to three guys, and then we'll let those guys compete.
"I'll probably name the starter on game week."
Mason described these next couple of months as the second phase of the foundation.
"Now is when your leadership is developed as well as your team chemistry," he said. "This is when we ask ourselves, 'Who are we, and where do we want to go?' Those things are being cemented right now.
"Right now, our guys are in a good place. We've had a chance to meet with them once a week, starting last week, and I think it's been fantastic finding out where our guys are."
Recruiting also is a priority right now, with the Commodores owning three commitments for 2015 -- tailback Josh Crawford of Elmore, Ala., quarterback Kyle Shurmur of Wyndmoor, Pa., and cornerback Donovan Sheffield of Ensworth High in Nashville. Sheffield is rated among the top 250 players nationally by Rivals.com.
Several SEC coaches have produced highly regarded classes in their first full year, including Alabama's Nick Saban in 2008 and Tennessee's Butch Jones earlier this year, and Mason expects that trend to continue.
"I think this class is going to be stellar," he said. "We've designated guys who fit what we do and know who we are. I'm extremely excited about our start, but it's a lengthy process that we feel will only get better for us."
Mason said he enjoyed visiting with several of his coaching counterparts in his first SEC spring meetings. Who did he enjoy getting to know most?
"Steve Spurrier," he said. "I didn't know Coach Spurrier that well, and he's fantastic. He's got an extremely endearing personality and is great with people. He knows what this game is about and cares for the kids."
Vanderbilt's four nonconference opponents this season are Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. The next nonconference opponent from a "Power Five" conference is Georgia Tech in 2016, but Mason is looking to enhance future scheduling.
"I hate to speak too prematurely, but we've been in some talks," Mason said. "Stanford was here this past weekend for the baseball tournament, and I can tell you this, whether it's teams like Notre Dame or Stanford or Northwestern, we're actively in talks. You're going to see some of those games coming up on the schedule in these next three to four years.
"That is the model we are moving toward, because the college football playoff model is all about strength of schedule, and we want to be a factor. We're going to play some top-tier private programs, but we also want to play some other Top 25 programs to continue to build our brand."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...