NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Before spring practice started, new Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason used an analogy for how philosophical changes on both sides of the ball would be implemented.
He likened it to having his players drink water out of a fire hose, as the offense changed from a read-option attack to pro style and defensively from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 look.
"Spring practice has been outstanding," said Mason, who put a wrap on it Saturday with the annual Black & Gold Spring Game. "These last two or three practices, you heard the type of questions that guys who understand football and this game ask.
"There is more communication. There’s clear communication. But more than anything else, better execution. That is just the process from sun-ups to sun-downs becoming more comfortable with what we do."
For his first spring game since succeeding former Commodores coach James Franklin, who departed for Penn State, Mason didn’t divide the teams equally, but rather had offense and defense going against each other to keep the sides intact.
"It is a situation where we need to make sure our offensive guys and our defensive guys are working together," said Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator, "so we can start to build cohesiveness and leadership that we need that sometimes a spring game, when you choose teams, doesn’t allow.
"We’re a new staff with new offenses and defenses. We need to make sure those guys have chances to play together."
Team Gold (offense) scored a 20-15 victory over Teaam Black (defense) in front of roughly 8,400 sun-splashed fans at Vanderbilt Stadium. A complicated scoring system was used in the scrimmage, counting plays on both sides of the ball.
At the center of attention were sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. One will eventually become the Commodores’ starting quarterback when the team opens the season against visiting Temple on Aug. 28.
Robinette has the advantage in experience, having played in 10 games last season as the Commodores won nine games for a second straight season and went to a third straight bowl game, a program best. That included Robinette starting for injured starter Austyn Carta-Samuels in the BBVA Compass Bowl win over Houston.
But Robinette is more of a read-option quarterback, while McCrary has a stronger passing arm and may fit better into the new pro-style system being installed by offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell, the former UCLA head coach.
"The quarterback situation is a good one," Mason said. "I’ve seen great maturity from both those guys."
In the spring game, Robinette completed 7 of 11 of passes for 65 yards; McCary connected on 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards.
Eleven different receivers caught passes, including a game-high three receptions from redshirt freshman Gerald Perry. Redshirt freshman running back Ralph Webb had a game-high 114 rushing yards on 14 carries, including a 60-yard touchdown run.
"Johnny has shown his ability to put the ball in tight quarters and throw the ball down the field," Mason said of McCrary. "He’s got big-time playmaking capabilities. He’s still digesting the idea of how to maneuver the offense and get people lined up in the right place."
And of Robinette?
"When you look at Robinette, his experience really shows up," Mason said, "because what you see from him is an ability to manage the offense and be effective, both runner and passer. I have been excited to watch the battle. The battle has been good, but there is going to be no resolution to this any time soon."
Mason said McCrary might have an advantage because he fits more into the philosophy of Dorrellâs offense. However, he also expects both quarterbacks to expand their skill sets to fill a variety of roles.
"We have several facets to our offense," Mason said. "What (Dorrell) has done, he has tried to play to both guys’ strengths. He has done a masterful job this spring of making sure both those guys understand that we have dimensions."
The subtle differences between quarterbacks hasn’t been lost on Robinette, who completed 46 of 88 passes (52.3 percent) for 642 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions last season. He also rushed for 206 yards, fourth-best on the team.
"I’m a game-manager kind of guy," Robinette said. "I’m going to come in and not try to force things. I’m just going to move the ball downfield. Johnny takes some shots. I should probably take some more shots. Maybe, Johnny should be more of a game manager."
Defensively this spring, coordinator David Kotulski moved several linemen to outside linebacker slots in the new 3-4 alignment. That includes senior Kyle Woestmann, who last season had a career-high 38 tackles and team highs with 5 1/2 sacks and 6 1/2 tackles for loss.
"The defensive change gives us a lot more versatility and a lot more opportunity to make plays and not just be D-inemen," Woestmann said. "We actually command the defense, make adjustments, do things on our own instead of having to get in a three-point stance. It’s nice to be a bigger factor in the game."
As the first spring practice under Mason came to a close, he also underwent a self-evaluation of being a head coach for the first time after 20 seasons as a college and NFL assistant. That includes the last three seasons as Stanford’s defensive coordinator (2011-13).
"I understand our personnel," he said. "And I understand what we need to do in terms of getting the ball to our playmakers. Our offense, they see me in meetings. They see me encouraging them. They see me challenging them as well.
"That’s something that a head coach has to do. You can’t be one-sided in your thought process. But I am not a micro-manager either. … I let those (assistant coaches) do their job, but I try to make sure that my voice is heard and my face is seen, and my ‘yes’ means yes and my ‘no’ means no."