SEC: Derek Mason

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Vanderbilt has played in three consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history.

Stanford has appeared in four straight BCS bowl games, and Notre Dame played for a BCS national championship two seasons ago.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt's Derek Mason
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsDerek Mason wants Vanderbilt to be a 'quarterback school.'
Duke, of all teams, is coming off a 10-win season.

It seems it pays to be smart in college football nowadays.

“You’re not walking into a home having to apologize about being smart,” new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “You’re not trying to downplay what you’re doing academically.”

Mason, who worked as Stanford’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator the past three seasons, was hired by Vanderbilt to replace the departed James Franklin on Jan. 17. Franklin had a 24-15 record the past three seasons, including 9-4 marks in 2012 and ’13.

Mason sees a lot of similarities between Stanford and Vanderbilt, both academically and athletically.

“In my mind, when I look at the landscape of college football and where we’re at, Vanderbilt is poised to have success,” Mason said. “The groundwork has been laid and gives us an opportunity to compete now. From players to scheduling, everything is in place for us to get what [we want], which is an SEC East title.”

Like Vanderbilt, Stanford wasn’t a football juggernaut until coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2007. The Cardinal went 1-11 in coach Walt Harris’ final season in 2006 and then had consecutive losing campaigns in Harbaugh’s first two seasons. But Stanford has won 54 games the past five seasons combined under Harbaugh and his successor, David Shaw.

“When you have brands that are very, very similar and you had the opportunity to see things work, I think you integrate the things that worked well,” Mason said. “You have to look at what the environment is like at Vanderbilt and figure out how you can make it better.”

On the field, Mason will have to replace eight starters on defense and settle on a starting quarterback. Sophomore Patton Robinette, redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, freshman Wade Freebeck and senior Stephen Rivers, an LSU transfer, will battle for the starting job when preseason camp opens. The Commodores must also replace star receiver Jordan Matthews.

“I want to turn Vanderbilt into a quarterback school and infuse talent,” Mason said.

Sounds a lot like Stanford.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Derek Mason had the media eating out of his palm the second he strolled into the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Monday wearing a sharp black bow tie and a patterned gold jacket. Then he did the rarest thing you’ll see at a conference media days gathering: He opened his mouth and meaningful words came out.

In a sea of vanilla quotes and too-tight windsor knots, Mason set himself apart at SEC media days. He stepped to the podium, proudly called himself the new head coach on the block and added that, "The great thing is I'm undefeated, so I'm feeling real good about where we're at." Later he was asked who the most underrated team in the league might be this season, and without the slightest pause he said it was his own.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt's Derek Mason
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports"I think our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now," new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said.
While the rest of the country might see Vanderbilt as a nice little rebuilding project that can raise the league's SAT scores, Mason dared to be confident.

"I think our opportunity to compete for an SEC East title is now," he said.

If James Franklin was audacious about raising expectations at Vanderbilt, his successor is taking it one step further. Everything is on the table for Mason. He wants to recruit nationally. He wants to play freshmen right away. He wants to throw the SEC for a loop with his West Coast roots.

"My job is to compete," Mason said. "My team has to be competitive. I need to be competitive from a recruiting standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, from selling of our program, our city. Those things are what I've been charged with to do. I really embrace that from the standpoint of here is the opportunity, let's go."

Stanford's former defensive coordinator will have his fair share of challenges as a first-year head coach, to be sure. He's inheriting a team that lost its starting quarterback, both its top receivers and more than half of its defense from a year ago. With games against Ole Miss, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida on the schedule, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

But Mason believes linebacker Caleb Azubike is going to be a star, Andrew Williamson is the best safety you’ve never heard of, and the tight ends, led by Steven Scheu, could be a real weapon.

"Our team is a team of probably no-name young men who have a chance to do something great," Mason said. "It's talented across the board."

Just how talented remains to be seen. But if media days was a barometer, Vanderbilt won’t be lacking in confidence.

While other coaches deflected and dodged questions on Monday, Mason happily navigated the fray.

Late in the day, he went up to two workers carrying the SEC championship trophy. He stopped to pose alongside it, made the Vanderbilt "V" with his right hand and called the prize "what we are chasing."
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!
Auburn is the favorite to win every game this season except the Iron Bowl, but the Tigers have only the fourth-best odds of winning the SEC title for a second straight season. This according to the preseason projections that ESPN’s Stats and Information team released on Tuesday.

Using its preseason Football Power Index as a guide, the Stats and Information group’s projections covered a wide range of categories including likelihood of going undefeated, odds of winning conference and division titles, likelihood of winning individual games and projected win totals.

The data showed Florida State as a heavy favorite to repeat as the national champion, with the Seminoles having a 40 percent chance of going undefeated and at least an 87 percent chance of winning each of its games. The next-closest team, Oregon, has a 13 percent chance of going undefeated.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kansas (projection of 3.3 wins), Purdue (3.6), Wake Forest (3.6) and California (3.8) are the teams from the Big Five conferences that are projected to win the fewest games.

The projections covered every FBS program, but we’re here to discuss the SEC, where -- surprise, surprise -- Alabama is the favorite to hoist the conference championship trophy in Atlanta. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide has a 23 percent chance to win the conference title according to ESPN’s projections, leading South Carolina (17 percent), Georgia (17) and Auburn (16), which was certainly a much bigger underdog at this point a season ago.

Obviously Gus Malzahn's 2013 club proved that things can change a great deal between July and December -- and the Stats and Information group’s projections will be updated throughout the season -- but here’s where each SEC team sits for now, a little less than a month away from the start of preseason practice.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide is projected to win 9.9 games and has a 4 percent chance of going undefeated. In addition to its 22.6 percent chance of winning the SEC, Alabama has a 38 percent chance of winning the SEC West. Alabama is the favorite in every game and has at least a 64.5 percent chance of winning all but the LSU (57.5) and Auburn (57.8) games.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks play the SEC’s toughest schedule (No. 4 in the nation) and are projected to win 4.9 games. They have a 0 percent chance to win the conference title and a 0.01 percent chance of winning the West. In individual games, however, Arkansas is favored to win only against UAB (96.8 percent chance of a win), Nicholls State (96.7) and Northern Illinois (71.7).

Auburn: The only other team in the nation’s top 10 in strength of schedule (the Tigers are 10th), Auburn is projected to win 9.2 games. They have a 1 percent chance of going undefeated, a 16.3 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 26.7 percent chance of winning the West. The Tigers have at least a 60 percent chance to win every game except Alabama (42.2) and Georgia (54.4).

Florida: Projected to win 7.6 games, Florida has a 6.2 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 16.3 percent chance of winning the SEC East. The Gators are favored in seven games and underdogs against LSU (49.9), South Carolina (45.6), Georgia (35.7), Alabama (20.7) and Florida State (8.9).

Georgia: Oddly enough, while South Carolina has a slightly better chance of winning the SEC according to ESPN’s projections, Georgia has a small edge over the Gamecocks with a projection of 9.1 wins. The Bulldogs have a 17.1 percent chance of winning the conference and a 37.5 percent chance of winning the East. They have at least at 63.4 percent chance of beating every opponent except South Carolina (41.1) and Auburn (45.6).

Kentucky: ESPN’s projections have Kentucky making a step forward in Year 2 under Mark Stoops, winning 5.5 games this fall. The Wildcats have a 0.03 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.09 percent chance of winning the East. They are favored to beat Tennessee-Martin, Ohio, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe, but there next-best chance of winning is 37.9 percent against Tennessee.

LSU: Les Miles’ Tigers are projected to win 8.0 games, with a 4.6 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 9.5 percent chance of winning the West. However, the Tigers are favored in nine games -- all but Auburn (26.8), Texas A&M (38.0) and Alabama (42.5).

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are projected to win 8.5 games, with a 4.7 percent chance of winning the conference and 9.7 percent chance of winning the West. Mississippi State is favored in eight games -- all but Ole Miss (47.0), Auburn (40.0), LSU (39.7) and Alabama (25.5).

Missouri: Projected to win 7.0 games, Missouri has a 2.3 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 7.1 percent chance of representing the East in Atlanta for a second straight season. The Tigers are favored in eight games and underdogs against Georgia (36.6), Florida (32.3), Texas A&M (22.2) and South Carolina (21.9).

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze’s club is projected to win 7.7 games and has a 2.9 percent chance of winning the conference and a 6.5 percent chance of winning the West. The Rebels are favored in eight games and are underdogs against Alabama (35.5), Auburn (35.0), LSU (34.7) and Texas A&M (31.2).

South Carolina: The Gamecocks are projected to win 8.9 games, have a 17.9 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 37.2 percent chance of winning the East. South Carolina is favored in all games except Clemson (47.5) and Auburn (30.4).

Tennessee: Projected to win 5.4 games, Butch Jones’ Volunteers have a 0.02 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.1 percent chance of winning the East. The Vols are favored to win five games: Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Texas A&M: The Aggies are projected to win 8.3 games and have a 4.8 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 9.5 percent chance of winning the West. Texas A&M is favored in eight games and is an underdog against Mississippi State (47.6), South Carolina (41.4), Alabama (30.5) and Auburn (30.1).

Vanderbilt: The James Franklin-less Commodores are projected to drop to 4.9 wins under first-year coach Derek Mason. They have a 0 percent chance of winning the SEC and a 0.02 percent chance of winning the East. Vandy is favored against UMass, Charleston Southern, Temple and Old Dominion.

Most important game: Vanderbilt

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
3:30
PM ET
We're kicking off a new series today looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. We start in reverse alphabetical order with Vanderbilt.

Most important game: Sept. 6 vs. Ole Miss

Key players: The biggest change at Vanderbilt is at head coach where former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was brought in after James Franklin bolted for Penn State. With the departure of senior starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, the Commodores will also be breaking in a new signal-caller. Sophomore Patton Robinette started three games last season, including the BBVA Compass Bowl. Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, transferred from LSU in the offseason and is immediately eligible to compete for the job. Vanderbilt junior running back Jerron Seymour made eight starts in 2013 and tied Zac Stacy's school record with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Commodores have a large hole to fill at receiver where they graduated Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leading receiver with 262 receptions. Mason has a lot of work to do with Vandy's defense, especially after losing Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall -- three of the team's top-four tacklers -- from the secondary. The strength of Mason's defense, as it moves from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base, will be the linebackers. Darreon Herring (84 tackles), Jake Sealand (45 tackles) return in the middle, while Kyle Woestmann (six sacks) and Caleb Azubike (four sacks) move from defensive end to outside linebacker.

Why it matters: The second game of the season won't have postseason implications for either team, but it means everything in terms of Mason's first impression in the SEC. Taking over for the best coach in a school's history isn't easy. After three bowl games in a row and back-to-back 9-4 seasons, the bar is now set high at Vanderbilt. Mason will be looking to prove he can continue Franklin's success without much of a transition. His players, meanwhile, should have even bigger chips on their shoulders. They want the SEC to know their recent run wasn't all about Franklin. They'll also be looking for some revenge against Ole Miss for a season-opening 39-35 loss last year. Vanderbilt-Ole Miss isn't one of the SEC's highest profile rivalries, but it is one of the oldest. This will be the second time in two years that these two teams meet in Nashville, Tennessee. The Commodores played host to the Rebels in a highly entertaining back-and-forth game last season. There were four lead changes, culminating with a 75-yard touchdown run by Mississippi RB Jeff Scott with just over a minute left in the game. The loss didn't dampen Vandy's enthusiasm much, though, as the Commodores went on to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. They'll need the same kind of mental resolve to make Mason's debut in 2014 a success.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

SEC lunchtime links

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
12:00
PM ET
Before you start waving the Stars and Stripes for the U.S.-Ghana match later this afternoon at the World Cup, let's first check out what's happening a bit closer to home in the SEC:


Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.
DESTIN, Fla. -- New Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason knows what it takes to build a program.

The former Stanford defensive coordinator was there for the Cardinal’s makeover and now has the task of making sure Vanderbilt, which enjoyed three excellent years under former coach James Franklin, stays relevant in the ravenous SEC.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDerek Mason wants Vanderbilt to have a national footprint in recruiting while still taking full advantage of the talent in its region.
What Mason doesn’t have to worry about is building from the ground up. Thanks to superb recruiting efforts by Franklin and his coaching staff, Mason’s first year in Nashville will feature not only quality but experience.

But Mason didn’t take this job to be a one-hit wonder. Franklin’s players won’t be on campus forever, so Mason has to build his own foundation in Nashville.

Mason might not have the boisterous salesmanship that made Franklin so effective on the recruiting trail, but he has plenty of experience recruiting at both a national and southern level. Mason said Stanford went head-to-head with Commodores coaches a few times in recruiting, but what he wants to do is stretch Vandy’s recruiting footprint beyond the comfort of its southern borders.

“That mindset’s gonna change. Vanderbilt’s a national brand, much like Stanford,” Mason told reporters last week during SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida. “Much like the Notre Dames and the Dukes, you have to go national to fill out your roster. There are great players across the country; we just so happen to be in the SEC and sit in a hotbed of talent.”

Don’t get Mason wrong, he isn’t going to ignore what the South has to offer. The goal is to collect as much close-proximity talent as possible, but he also knows that with a program like Vanderbilt, he can’t get complacent. He has to expand.

“Let’s go where the talent is, and let’s fit our profile,” Mason said.

With the nationwide success Stanford had in recruiting when Mason was around, he shouldn’t have a problem walking into high schools around the country. But Mason plans to clean up at home, too.

Take one look at Stanford’s current roster and you’ll find more than 20 players from states that house SEC schools. Mason had a hand in landing a few of those players and isn’t afraid to push himself around with the SEC’s big boys.

“I came into the South and recruited some of the best players the South had to offer against the Alabamas and everybody else,” he said. “We’re going to go everywhere to recruit, but I cut my teeth in the South.”

Another way Mason plans to expand Vandy’s brand is to play out of its comfort zone. Mason already has the advantage of seeing some of the best competition in the sport right in his own conference, but he also wants his players to see some of the other quality teams from around the country, especially when it comes to top academic schools.

Mason said he plans to take full advantage of the SEC’s new rule about adding a mandatory nonconference Power Five opponent to the schedule starting in 2016.

“It’s healthy,” Mason said. “I’ve been in that environment. I’ve had to play in those big games, those top games. Football is football. Nowadays, strength of schedule isn’t really what it looks like. If you want to be a championship team playing in the playoff structure, you really have to look and know what your schedule looks like and you can’t be afraid to play teams.”

So does that mean trying to schedule a home-and-home with Stanford?

“Yes, absolutely,” Mason said. “Absolutely -- Stanford, Notre Dame, whoever else is out there. In order to be considered a good team, you have to play good teams, and we’re not going to shy away from that in our nonconference schedule.”

SEC's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
PM ET
Johnny Manziel will throw out the first pitch in tonight's Cleveland Indians game. It's a safe bet he won't go all 50 Cent on us.
DESTIN, Fla. -- Derek Mason has only been in Nashville for a few months, but he's trying to make every strong impression he can as Vanderbilt's new head coach.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason card
Edward Aschoff/ESPNDerek Mason's business card ... he doesn't leave home without it.
He said he stayed relatively quiet during this week's SEC spring meetings, but when he finally met with members of the media on Wednesday, his voice was strong and his passion was obvious.

He discussed how he expects Vanderbilt to resemble the Stanford team he just left, and he has no problem expanding Vandy's brand by recruiting more nationally.

But what really caught my eye was the swag he was packing in his brown computer bag.

After an insightful conversation with Mason in a lounge area of the Sandestin Hilton, he handed a couple of lucky reporters, including myself, arguably the most impressive business card I've ever seen or touched.

That shiny thing of beauty looked and felt like it was made of gold. It clanked when I dropped it on the table, and it weighed down my wallet. It was heavy enough to cut a piece of fruit, and the tiny holes surrounding Vandy's star logo could probably grate some cheese over my pasta. It was cool, and it's likely to turn heads whenever he meets someone. First impressions and everything right?

And that's what Mason needs. When he's trying to spread Vandy's brand and mingle with new people, those cards are going to help. When he wants to show that the Commodores still have some flash after James Franklin left, those cards are going to help.

If his business cards are like that, I can only imagine what his résumé looked like.

Schedule analysis: Vanderbilt

May, 19, 2014
May 19
10:45
AM ET
Who has the trickiest schedule in the SEC for 2014? How about the easiest, and who has the toughest stretch?

We answer all those questions and more with our annual schedule analysis and will examine the schedules of all 14 teams over the next few weeks. We'll kick it off with Vanderbilt and go in reverse alphabetical order:


Nonconference opponents (with 2013 record)

Aug. 28: Temple (2-10)
Sept. 13: Massachusetts (1-11)
Oct. 11: Charleston Southern (10-3)
Nov. 1: Old Dominion (8-4)

SEC home games

Sept. 6: Ole Miss (LP Field in Nashville)
Sept. 20: South Carolina
Nov. 8: Florida
Nov. 29: Tennessee

SEC road games

Sept. 27: at Kentucky
Oct. 4: at Georgia
Oct. 25: at Missouri
Nov. 22: at Mississippi State

Gut-check time: The trip to Georgia on Oct. 4 is ominous for a couple of reasons. For starters, the Dawgs should again be plenty explosive on offense in 2014, and it's never much fun going into Sanford Stadium. The last time Vanderbilt played in Athens, the Commodores were decimated 48-3 two years ago, and you can bet that Georgia hasn't forgotten the bitter 31-27 setback it suffered in Nashville a year ago. It's also the second leg of back-to-back SEC games on the road for the Commodores and will be their sixth straight game in as many weeks without a bye.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesVanderbilt has raised its victory sign nine consecutive times in November.
Trap game: The first game of that SEC road trip before going to Georgia has danger written all over it. Kentucky should be much improved in Year No. 2 under Mark Stoops, and the game (Sept. 27) is sandwiched between a home game with South Carolina and the road date at Georgia. The Wildcats also will be looking to break a three-game losing streak against the Commodores.

Snoozer: The truth is there are a few. We'll call it a tie between Massachusetts' visit on Sept. 13 and FCS foe Charleston Southern's visit on Oct. 11. Temple isn't a ready-made sellout, either, but at least that game is the season opener on a Thursday and will be televised by the SEC Network.

Telltale stretch: The three-game stretch starting with the home game against South Carolina in September is key, but the one that will shape the Commodores' season is the three-game stretch to close it -- home against Florida, at Mississippi State and then home against Tennessee on the final weekend. There's a bye between the Florida and Mississippi State games, and Vanderbilt needs to find a way to continue its mastery of November.

Final analysis: Derek Mason steps in for James Franklin and faces some lofty expectations after the Commodores won nine games each of the past two seasons. Franklin made a living beating the teams he should beat on his schedule, but he also won two in a row over Tennessee and beat both Florida and Georgia last season. Go back and check the last time that happened at Vanderbilt. Similar to his predecessor, Mason will need to take advantage of a cushy nonconference schedule, the cushiest in the league. Really, the Commodores should be 4-0 to start the season. Then it comes down to finding at least two conference wins to make it four straight bowl appearances. The Commodores have won nine straight games in the month of November going back to the end of the 2011 season. If they can find at least two more wins in November this season, go ahead and punch their postseason ticket.
It's May, so we might as well look to the future while we take one last look at the past in order to figure out the present.

Illustrious colleague Mark Schlabach already helped us out with the future portion by posting his Post-Spring Way-Too-Early Top 25. In it, he has seven SEC teams ranked:

2. Alabama

4. Auburn

8. Georgia

10. South Carolina

13. LSU

14. Texas A&M

19. Florida

It's interesting to see Florida ranked inside the top 20, especially after last year's 4-8 season, but there's no way the offense will be that bad again or the injury bug will strike so hard again, right?

With Schlabach having fun with another set of rankings, we thought we'd have a little fun of our own and put together some post-spring SEC Power Rankings! Nothing like starting a little debate right after spring practice.

Let's see how perfect these are:

1. Auburn: Quarterback Nick Marshall is throwing the ball better, meaning the offense could be even more potent in 2014. The defense was much better this spring, with players reacting more than learning. You have to beat the best before you can pass them in the rankings.

2. Alabama: This team is motivated by last season's disappointing final two games. The defense lost valuable leadership and talent, but a hungry bunch lurks on that side. Alabama could be waiting on its starting quarterback -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- and if the spring game was any indication, the Crimson Tide certainly need him. The good news is that a wealth of offensive talent returns.

3. South Carolina: It was a quiet spring for the Gamecocks, who should yet again own an exciting offense, headed by Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and a deep offensive line. There are questions on defense, but the Gamecocks could have budding stars in defensive tackle J.T. Surratt and linebacker Skai Moore. There could be more stars lurking, too.

4. Missouri: The loss of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham hurts an inexperienced receiving corps, but there is some young talent there and no questions at quarterback or running back. The defense should be solid up front, but the secondary has plenty of questions.

5. Georgia: The defense as a whole has a lot to work on, but the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Aaron Murray might be gone, but Hutson Mason looked comfortable this spring and has a ton to work with, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley at running back and good depth at receiver.

6. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze didn't even think he'd be talking about bowl games until his third year. Well, he's entering his third year and has a team that could seriously contend for the SEC West title. Bo Wallace's shoulder is finally healthy and the defense has a lot of potential, especially along the line.

7. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 18 starters from last year's team and could be dangerous this fall. If quarterback Dak Prescott can be a more complete quarterback, this offense could explode. Mississippi State owns possibly the SEC's most underrated defense.

8. LSU: We really don't know what we'll get out of this group. There's plenty of athleticism to go around, but once again the Tigers lost a lot of talent to the NFL. There's excitement about the secondary, and freshman Brandon Harris could be a special player at quarterback.

9. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans are all gone. The offense has a bit of rebuilding to do, but there are young stars in the making on that side of the ball. The defense didn't take many hits from graduation, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done there.

10. Florida: The Gators were healthier this spring, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought excitement and consistency to the offense. Will any of that translate to the season? Not sure at this point. The good news is that the defense shouldn't drop off too much after losing some valuable pieces to the NFL.

11. Tennessee: The excitement level has certainly increased in Knoxville, and it looks like Butch Jones is building a strong foundation. The defense still has a lot of unknowns, and while it appears the offensive talent has increased, play at quarterback is key and that position is still a little unstable.

12. Vanderbilt: After three great years under James Franklin, Derek Mason is now responsible for continuing the momentum in Nashville. Like Franklin, Mason arrived with no head-coaching experience, but he has a great base to work with. It could take a while for the offense to get going, but there's promise in the defensive front seven.

13. Arkansas: Slowly, Bret Bielema is getting guys to adapt more to his system. Brandon Allen separated himself at quarterback but will have to groom someone into being his go-to receiving target. There is still a lot that has to improve on a team that had one of the SEC's worst offensive and defensive combinations last season.

14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops is certainly more excited about Year 2 in Lexington with some players emerging on the offensive side of the ball. The Wildcats still have to find more consistency in the playmaker department, and they have a quarterback battle on their hands. The secondary is a total unknown at this point, and leaders have to emerge at linebacker and defensive tackle.
Week 1 was packed with kickoff classics, network-launching games and more in the SEC.

Week 2 things slow way, way down as the high-profile nonconference matchups like Wisconsin, West Virginia and Clemson are replaced with the Florida Atlantics and Eastern Michigans of the world.

But the first weekend in September won’t be without a few bright spots -- even if we had to look high and low to find them.

In case you didn’t catch the first installment of this series, which will run every Monday until its completion, its purpose is to provide a rundown of the league’s action and give you our pick for the top one-two matchups every week.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at Week 2:

Saturday, Sept. 6
Florida Atlantic at Alabama
Nichols State at Arkansas
San Jose State at Auburn
Eastern Michigan at Florida
Ohio at Kentucky
Sam Houston at LSU
UAB at Mississippi State
Missouri at Toledo
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt
East Carolina at South Carolina
Arkansas State at Tennessee
Lamar at Texas A&M

Alex Scarborough’s pick: East Carolina at South Carolina and Arkansas State at Tennessee

Who says we don’t care about the mid-majors in the SEC? Sometimes we pay attention to the little guy, especially when the little guy finished 10-3 a season ago.

OK, maybe I’m just lazy and my mind doesn’t want to leave the Palmetto State, where it was a week ago for South Carolina-Texas A&M. Maybe I just want to hear more Steve Spurrier-isms. But in all seriousness, why not stick around to potentially see an upset?

East Carolina isn’t a prime time team, but you might remember its 5-point loss to Virginia Tech or, better yet, its blowout wins over North Carolina, Tulsa and North Carolina State last season -- won by a combined score of 155-83. If you were hungry for football in late December, you might have caught its 37-20 win over Ohio in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. In other words, the Pirates are not to be trifled with.

And because I want to make this a real upset special kind of weekend, I’ll be sure to watch Arkansas State-Tennessee.

The Vols could be in for real trouble with this one. Butch Jones isn’t doing himself any favors bringing in a program that’s won 28 games over the past three seasons. And considering the fact that Tennessee doesn’t return a single starter on the offensive or defensive line, doesn’t have an established quarterback and will be coming off a tough season-opener against a Utah State team that won nine games a season ago, it’s a safe bet that Arkansas State will be getting everyone’s full attention.

Greg Ostendorf’s pick: Ole Miss at Vanderbilt

The potential upsets are intriguing, but if we’re taking the ultimate SEC road trip, then why not choose the lone SEC matchup between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt? The game will be at LP Field in Nashville, the home of the Tennessee Titans, and if the past two years were any indication, it could very well come down to the final play.

In 2012, the Commodores rallied back from a 17-point second-half deficit and scored a touchdown in the final minute to win, 27-26. And who can forget last fall's thriller to open the season? The lead changed hands three times in the fourth quarter, but it was Jeff Scott’s 74-yard touchdown run with 1:07 left that put the Rebels ahead for good.

What’s next in this budding SEC rivalry?

Looking back, neither Alex or Edward picked a sneaky good Boise State-Ole Miss matchup as your destination in Week 1, so this will also be our first look at the Rebels and quarterback Bo Wallace. He’s one of the top returning signal-callers in the conference, and if he can stay healthy, he could be in for a big year. And how will the super sophomores look? They were all the buzz in last season's game, and I don’t expect it to be any different this fall.

On the other side, it will be the first SEC game for new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. The Commodores get Temple in Week 1, but this game will be much more telling as what can be expected in Mason’s first year in Nashville.

Don’t expect College GameDay to make the trip, but this should still be an intriguing matchup between two teams who have grown familiar with each other over the years.
ESPN 300 defensive lineman Nifae Lealao committed to Stanford last October, but when former Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason took the head coach job at Vanderbilt after the season, Lealao followed him to the SEC and signed with the Commodores. He instantly became Mason’s top signee for 2014.

We caught up with the Sacramento, Calif., native to talk about his decision, his future coach and his budding music career.

Q: I have to ask. You’re a California guy. How’d you end up at Vanderbilt?

[+] EnlargeNifae Lealao
John Albright/Icon SMINifae Lealao, an ESPN 300 defensive lineman, junked his plan to go to Stanford to follow Derek Mason to Vanderbilt.
Lealao: After my official [visits] with Stanford and then Cal, signing day was coming up, and I still had three visits left. I kind of had already picked them out, but right after that coaching change, something was telling me that maybe I should go and check out Vandy, just to see what’s out there. I had never been to Tennessee. It turned out to be a really good fit for me, other than the distance. That’s the only thing that made me reluctant about it, but everything else was perfect.

Q: What stood about Vanderbilt and the city of Nashville on your trip?

Lealao: I just think that with the school being a few blocks away from downtown Nashville -- the influence of not just music but that the network and business have on that school -- plus the academics and then you add on a premier football team, it’s like you’ve got all these presents on Christmas. It’s one of those things where every day is a surprise. You don’t know what you’re going to get from anyone who goes there. Everybody has something to bring to the table. It’s basically like a pot luck, the pot luck of opportunity.

Q: What made you want to follow Coach Mason?

Lealao: What I see in Coach Mason is that he’s a mentor that will put you in the right spot and the right spot to succeed. Looking at Stanford even before the commitment, it was one of my favorite schools. I looked into their defense and how Coach Mason was doing, and there’s really nothing better you can get from him. The last two years, his defensive stats have been off the charts. They were ranked in the top 10 in every category -- sacks, rushing defense, rushing the passer, blocks, blocked kicks and all that kind of stuff. To me, I’m looking at ‘OK, where would I fit in?’ I talked to him about it, and he said I’d either be a rushing end or one of the two defensive tackles in the middle. It was one of those things where either way I know I’ll be put in the right position for me to continue to grow and succeed as a player and as a person, too. He is a guy who does care about you. I just thought that was the perfect package for me.

Q: I hear you’re a pretty good singer. Is that true?

Lealao: I’m not bad. It’s just one of those things that I keep in my back pocket and when the time comes, I just belt it out and let it go. One of the best things is that it just surprises everybody. When I went on my official to Vandy, me and the other recruits were just hanging out in the hotel, in the ballroom. I just remember I started rapping and everybody was looking at my Instagram, and they were like, ‘Oh, you sing, too?’ So I sang for them and Coach Mason was there. I would consider myself a good singer. I do plan on double majoring in music and vocal performance and then business and entrepreneurship, so I consider myself good enough to keep pursuing it and wanting to get better.

Q: You are moving to the Music City? Is there an opportunity for you there?

Lealao: It will help with the whole networking process and aspiring to become a musician or vocalist. I have good ties with The Katinas, and they live out of Nashville. There's just a lot of good networks out there for me if I want to pursue something like that. And the Blair School of Music is actually really good. I want to really use all of my talents and gifts from God to pursue my career not only as a football player, but as a businessman and as a musician and as a singer. I just want to do everything I can to put it all out there because you only get to live your life once, so I want to do the best I can.

SPONSORED HEADLINES