NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason knows one thing is crucial for his Commodores: They have to be better in 2015 because they sure weren't last year.
The coach also is doing his best to make sure Vanderbilt improves by taking control of the defense.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself," Mason said Wednesday as the Commodores reported for fall practice. "I think this team is tired of the talk, the outside banter about who we are, what we are. For us ... that's motivated. I'm as energized as I've been in a couple years. So for me it's just about being able to get out there and do the work."
Mason took only a couple days off after going 3-9 in his first season as a head coach, then he got busy. He fired his offensive and defensive coordinators, and he lured Andy Ludwig away from Wisconsin to take over as his offensive coordinator. Then Mason put himself in charge of the defense, a job he did so well at Stanford before being hired at Vanderbilt.
He wants the Commodores to play relentlessly and establish the intense attitude he wants. Mason said he feels he's a better teacher and thinks working with his defensive players more closely will help them play faster and better, starting with the season opener Sept. 3 against Western Kentucky.
"They're more invested than I am right now," Mason said. "I like where we're at."
Mason has all 11 starters back from last season, and he gave them a taste of what to expect from him as a defensive coordinator by taking over the unit in the season-ending 24-17 loss to Tennessee. Linebacker Nigel Bowden said he expects the defense to be more fast-paced with no hesitation.
"He makes everything simpler for all of us," Bowden said.
The biggest question comes on offense. Patton Robinette came out of the spring as the projected starter, but over the summer he chose to give up football and attend medical school. That leaves Ludwig needing to decide between Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck, who were among four quarterbacks who started last season.
Mason said he wants a clear starter and backup at quarterback. Ludwig said they are waiting for either McCrary or Freebeck to take the decision out of their hands. Both are pretty similar to each other right now.
"We've got a competition," Ludwig said.
Ludwig also likes to run the ball, and he said the offensive line is bigger and stronger thanks to the offseason workouts. Guard Spencer Pulley is shifting to center, and Ludwig also will have converted defensive back Darrius Sims at wide receiver after Mason told the junior he needed his help on offense.
Vanderbilt also brings back Ralph Webb, who set the school freshman rushing record with 907 yards on 212 carries.
"We've got a great starting point there," Ludwig said. "It's really tough to downplay that's the starting point of the offense. That's what we're building it around right now."
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