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Five Thoughts on Oklahoma State Hiring Defensive Coordinator Derek Mason

On his experience and OSU’s commitment to defense.



[Devin Wilber/PFB]

Mike Gundy looked outside of the program for his next defensive coordinator, and he went with a proven commodity, bucking a recent trend.

Oklahoma State hired former Auburn DC Derek Mason on Wednesday. Here are some quick thoughts on the hire, the fit and what it means for Oklahoma State football.

1. Mason’s Got a Resume

Mason comes to Stillwater with loads of experience on both sides of the ball, both in college and the NFL. Since making the leap to coach defensive backs with the Minnesota Vikings from 2007-09, all of his jobs have been on the defensive side of the ball, except one (See Thought 2).

He’s held the DC title at Stanford in the early 2010s and Auburn last year. Not only are those Power Five programs, those are highly thought of Power Five programs.

2. Mason’s Got Head Coaching Experience

As Berry Tramel pointed out, Mason joins OSU’s last two DCs (Glenn Spencer and Jim Knowles) as the only Gundy-hired assistants to come in with head coaching experience.

Mason spent seven seasons as the head coach at Vanderbilt. He and Gundy got to know each other a bit during ESPN’s coaches broadcast of the national championship game between LSU and Clemson. They also crossed paths when Mason’s Stanford squad gave up 41 points to the Cowboys in overtime in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl.

Vanderbilt is no easy place to be a head coach. It’s a bottom-dweller program in the most respected football conference in America, the SEC. Mason went 27-55 with the Commodores, coaching Vanderbilt to bowl games in 2016 and 2018.

Mike Gundy is good for a soundbite, but Mason isn’t half bad either:

3. How Different Will OSU’s Defense Look in 2022?

With a new DC comes a new perspective on defensive philosophy, and if we look at what the incoming coordinator has coached in the past, it could give us an idea of what he’ll employ at OSU. Things can change. Even Jim Knowles’ system was tweaked upon arrival in Stillwater.

In an article by 247 Sports’ Auburn site, we see that prior to coaching at Auburn, Mason’s defenses had primarily operated out of a s 3-4 front, which sounds like it would be quite a different look from the 4-2-5 scheme Cowboys fans have grown accustomed to the last four years. But at Auburn, Mason used a good amount of a 2-4-5 defense, with outside linebackers essentially acting as edge rushers. That could mean guys like Collin Oliver, Trace Ford and Brock Martin play with their hands on the ground less and could be asked to do a few different things.

How any of this truly fits Mason’s personnel at OSU remains to be seen, but a change in coordinators likely means the Cowboys’ defensive unit will look at least a little different in 2022.

4. He’s Got Big Shoes to Fill

The Cowboys put up some historic numbers in 2021 under Knowles, and with the losses on that side of the ball (more on that below), replicating that success will be tough to do in Mason’s first year.

In 2021, OSU turned in statistical bests during Mike Gundy’s tenure in total defense, scoring defense, points per drive allowed, tackles for loss and sacks. The Cowboys’ third-down defense was second to only the 2020 squad under Knowles.

It’s important to remember that Knowles wasn’t an instant success in Stillwater. OSU actually dropped statistically in several key defensive categories in his first year, namely scoring defense and points per drive allowed. But as players came up in his system, the Cowboys improved. The success of this past season can at least be partially attributed to a veteran-laden roster full of players — including some “super seniors” — who’d been speaking Knowles’ language for years.

OSU has plenty of talent remaining on its defense, but some of it will be unproven. The Cowboys lose a lot of starters from their dominant 2021 group including Malcolm Rodriguez, Kolby Harvell-Peel, Tre Sterling, Tanner McCalister and others. It would be unfair to expect any coordinator to pick up where the last left off given these circumstances, but there are still reasons to expect a lot of the group.

5. A Sign of OSU Doubling Down on Defense?

Gundy has earned a reputation for uncovering unknown, or at least unheralded, assistants and handing them the reins to either his offense or defense. Offensive coordinators Mike Yurcich and Sean Gleeson were unknowns from a Division II and FCS program, respectively. Knowles fell more into the unheralded category. He’d led a decent defense at Duke in 2017, but had failed to crack the top half of the ACC in scoring defense the previous two years. He definitely wasn’t on many hot lists for DC hires.

Over the last two seasons, OSU has changed its identity to that of a defense-first program. Could this hire signify a change in Gundy’s hiring philosophy? A doubling down on the defensive moniker? There’s been a feeling by some (from the outside looking in) that pulling a Yurcich from Shippensburg is a low-risk proposition. I can see that at least in terms of the money involved when moving from DII to the Big 12.

But this is different. We don’t yet know what Mason’s contract at OSU will be, but we do know that the Cowboys tried to keep their last DC.

The Mason hire represents a significant commitment for Oklahoma State, which made a competitive offer to retain Knowles, according to sources.

[ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg]

Mason is an experienced former SEC and Pac-12 coordinator with head coaching experience, and from that standpoint, he may be the biggest coordinator hire that Gundy has ever brought in. Larry Fedora was the OC at Florida, but he didn’t have head coaching experience. I can’t think of anyone else who gets close when it comes to name or brand power coming in.

Whether or not that leads to a successful tenure at OSU also remains to be seen, but it looks like an indication that Gundy and OSU don’t want to lose that rare defensive clout that they’ve garnered over the last few years.

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