Vanderbilt coach starting to reap benefits of experience

Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason yells at an official during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas State, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Derek Mason and his Vanderbilt Commodores are showing that experience matters.

Yes, even in the mighty Southeastern Conference where so many 5-star recruits make an instant impact.

A year ago, Mason’s job security was shaky after a 2-4 start to his third season. Since then, the Commodores have gone 7-3, Mason picked up a contract extension and Vanderbilt is off to its best start at 3-0 since 2011 with the latest win a 14-7 upset of then-No. 18 Kansas State .

Mason thinks the turnaround is simple to explain: experience matters. Now he has 27 juniors and seniors on the Commodores’ two-deep depth chart.

”You just have to grow guys up in your culture, in your program and what you try to do is hold them responsible for playing good football, and I think man these guys have done just that,” Mason said. ”It’s not me holding them responsible. It’s those guys holding each other responsible. They’re loyal to one another, and that loyalty runs deep.”

James Franklin proved Vanderbilt could win, posting back-to-back 9-4 records in 2012 and 2013 with bowl victories that put the Commodores in the final AP Top 25 rankings. But he bolted for Penn State after three seasons, and Vanderbilt hasn’t been ranked since the final poll after the 2013 season.

Mason now is in his fourth season, and he has a lot to work with thanks to 18 returning starters – trailing only Georgia and Kentucky in the SEC with 19 apiece. That’s one more than Florida, the two-time SEC East champs.

Of that group, seven have started 10 or more games consecutively, and Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher Ralph Webb has 40 consecutive starts. Six other Commodores started multiple games last season: wide receivers C.J Duncan and Caleb Scott, tight end Jared Pinkney, defensive end Dare Odeyingbo, safety Arnold Tarpley III and cornerback Bryce Lewis.

That’s why Mason keeps talking about having a veteran team.

”When you start to get an older football team in this conference, you can play only 11 guys on the field , you can play anybody,” Mason said. ”You just got to make sure those guys believe it.”

Beating Georgia , Mississippi and Tennessee last season sure helped. The Commodores lost to Florida,Auburn and South Carolina in 2016 by a combined 17 points.

Senior safety Ryan White made it clear the Commodores trust Mason.

”We know that Coach has been through a lot,” White said. ”He always says trust the process, and we’re trusting that process and we’ve got each other’s backs.”

The Commodores face their biggest test Saturday when top-ranked Alabama (3-0) visits for the SEC opener for both teams. Franklin only had to face Alabama once, and Vanderbilt lost 34-0 in Tuscaloosa in his first season in 2011. This will be the first No. 1 team Vanderbilt has hosted since Tennessee in 1998 on the Vols’ way to a national title.

Charles Wright, a redshirt junior, leads the SEC with six sacks, while senior linebacker Emmanuel Smith ranks fourth in the league with 28 tackles. The Commodores are tied for the most sacks (10) and interceptions (five) in the league while leading the nation having allowed only 13 points through three games.

On offense, junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur has Vanderbilt averaging 242.6 yards passing per game, third-best in the league.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday that the Commodores’ experience in Mason’s system is easy to see with a physical offense and defense on film and in Vanderbilt’s results this season.

”There’s no question about the buy-in to the program and the job that he’s (Mason) done there,” Saban said.

One area that Mason still is working to improve is his young offensive line. A redshirt freshman is starting at right tackle with redshirt sophomores at right and left guard. Mason had to jump on the linemen about penalties at halftime of the win over Kansas State.

”The win helps them grow up, so we’ll be better,” Mason said.

AP Sports Writer John Zenor contributed to this report.

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