SEC Football Media Days Blog: Thursday
Welcome to the SEC Football Media Days Blog, your online home for the big news, behind-the-scenes notes and quotes and special moments that make this annual event, held this year in Hoover, Ala., the unofficial start of college football season. Check back for updates each day throughout the week.
Auburn defensive force Derrick Brown is a well-rounded young man
Derrick Brown's life changed last December when he became a father, welcoming Kai Asher Brown into the world. As the Auburn defensive tackle weighed whether to return for his final season as one of college football's best players or leave for the NFL, he thought of what he would tell his son.
"I wholeheartedly decided it was better to finish my degree now," he said. "I want to set the standard for my son growing up that education is what's going to happen. It's not an option."
Football factored into that decision as well.
"It was my motivation to do something special," he said, like compete for a national championship.
Brown's decision to return to the Plains helped convince seven other Auburn juniors who "seriously considered leaving early for the NFL," head coach Gus Malzahn said, to do the same.
"I really think that's where the core heartbeat of our team is," Malzahn said, "with those guys."
Malzahn described the 6-foot-5, 318-pound Brown as "a very well-rounded young man." He was one of three finalists last year for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award, which is awarded annually to the Division I college football player "who has demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field."
On the field, Brown is a disruptive force in the middle of one of the better defensive lines in the nation. He said he and his teammates up front go to work, though, like they're the worst.
"If you're in first place and you don't work hard, there's only one way to go," Brown said. He has no intention of letting himself, the defensive line or the Tigers slide this season.
Gus Malzahn expects to win more championships at Auburn
Gus Malzahn has heard the talk that he may be on the hot seat heading into his seventh season as the Auburn head coach, his 10th year on the Plains overall. It's not the first time. Rather than be troubled by it, the Auburn coach hit it head on Thursday. He sounded energized by the challenge to get the Tigers back to playing in the SEC Championship Game as they did in 2017 and winning it as they did in 2013 and 2010, when they also played for the national title, which they won in 2010 with Malzahn as offensive coordinator.
"I've got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships," Malzahn said. "I knew that when I signed up for it. In the years that we win championships, it's good. The years we don't, it's hot seat this, hot seat that. ... We expect to win championships. I'm very excited about this year."
His excitement starts where SEC coaches say winning begins, up front on both sides of the ball. The Auburn defensive line, anchored by preseason All-American defensive tackle Derrick Brown, is considered one of the best in college football.
That defensive front gives Malzahn reason to believe "we have a chance to be the best defense that we've had, at least in the ten years I've been at Auburn" as head coach and offensive coordinator. "That is a really good feeling."
On the other side of the ball, Malzahn has confidence that his five returning senior starters on the offensive line have matured into a winning unit after suffering through growing pains last season.
"They got beat up," he said. "They've got kind of an edge about them. I feel really good about that group."
The biggest question is how quickly redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or true freshman Bo Nix wins the quarterback battle. The answer will go a long way in determining if the Tigers, with Malzahn back to full-time play-calling duties, will return to their championship ways.
"Some places, eight wins, they celebrate," Malzahn said. "That's just not part of Auburn. We're expected to win championships, and we've done that. And we're going to have more championships in the future here, too."
Kentucky does not intend to be a one-hit 10-win wonder
It has to be hard for Kentucky not to bask in the glow of a special 2018 football season. The Wildcats accomplished things last year they hadn't in decades.
They beat Florida for the first time since 1986, for the first time in Gainesville since 1979. They won 10 games for the first time since 1977, for just the third time in school history. They capped off their historic season with a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State.
As special as those milestones were, coach Mark Stoops said, "We're not interested in just having one good team or one good year. We're interested in building a program, and that's what we're doing."
The proof is in the record. The Wildcats have put together three straight winning seasons and three straight bowl trips. Last year was far more of a natural progression than lightning in a bottle.
The challenge this season will be replacing the production and leadership of special players and leaders such as running back Benny Snell, UK's all-time leading rusher and a second-team All-American, and linebacker Josh Allen, the program's career sack leader, a consensus first-team All-American and the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Stoops called each of them "a hard guy to replace," but senior guard Logan Stenberg said an offseason of hard work, particularly by the men in the trenches, the offensive and defensive linemen, gives him confidence the Wildcats can continue the good work of 2018.
"We're just so much stronger and so much smarter this year," Stenberg said. "I don't see how we couldn't do better than last year."
Stoops said an intensified offseason approach was part of the plan to help the program maintain its positive momentum.
"So very pleased with the work that our team has done," Stoops said. "They've had a great offseason. They're hungry."
Hungry to not wait 41 years for another 10-win season.
"It's been a long time since we'd done that, and we're proud of that," Stoops said, "but we want more."
Vanderbilt's Derek Mason and his blue-collar swag
Derek Mason is going to retire the trophy as Best Dressed Coach at SEC Media Days. That's a compliment not just to his sense of style but also to the success he's enjoyed with the Commodores that has him entering his sixth season in Nashville.
"I'm a blue-collar guy," Mason said. "I know people look at the suit and maybe the shoes and say, 'Coach has some swag.' And I do. I truly believe that, but I also know and understand that a place like Vanderbilt is special, and you've got to be a grass-roots guy."
Mason is just the second coach in school history to lead the Commodores to multiple bowl games. He's done that twice in the last three years. He's also the first Vanderbilt coach to beat rival Tennessee three straight times for the first time since Dan McGugin in the 1920s.
As proud as Mason is of where the Commodores have been, he sounded even more excited about where they're heading.
"I want you to know this is a different-looking Vanderbilt football team with maturity, depth, athleticism and leadership," Mason said. "It's all in place for us."
The nucleus will be a "Big Three" of big-time senior playmakers in running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. Vaughn compared them to the NBA's Golden State Warriors of 2017, with him as Kevin Durant, the transfer/free agent.
Mason called Nashville "a hot city right now" with the momentum of hosting the NFL Draft - two Commodores were selected for the second time in three years - and watching the Vanderbilt baseball team win the College World Series. His football team plans to build on that momentum this fall.
"There's a different buzz in Nashville this summer around the university and our program," Mason said. "I believe right now this is the best football team that I've had."
Ke'Shawn Vaughn makes himself right at home at Vanderbilt
After high school, when he felt it was time to get away from his home in Nashville, Ke'Shawn Vaughn signed with Illinois. He enjoyed success there, but after an unexplained depth chart change, it was time for him to go home.
"Getting away from Nashville helped me grow up," Vaughn said. "I knew when I was ready to transfer, Vanderbilt was the place for me."
Last season, after sitting out his transfer year, the explosive running back made himself right at home with the Commodores. He finished third in the SEC with 1,244 rushing yards on only 157 carries and came up just short of the highest rushing total in school history. He led the league with 10 rushes of 40 yards or more and six carries of at least 60 yards.
"The biggest thing about Ke'Shawn," head coach Derek Mason said, "when he touches the ball, he's hard to tackle."
Mason figured Vaughn's 40-yard dash time at about 4.36 seconds.
"At 220 pounds," Mason said, "this young man can go."
Vaughn could've gone to the NFL after capping a huge stretch run with 243 rushing yards - second in school history - in the Texas Bowl shootout loss to Baylor, but "I feel like I still had things to prove in college."
One of those things: "Break records."
Vaughn got even more excited about his senior season when Mason hired former Auburn and Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton. When Vaughn visited Horton's office and saw mementos of the great runners Horton's coached - including Darren McFadden and Tre Mason - it got his attention and his respect.
"He's had so many great running backs," Vaughn said, "you don't want to do anything but listen."
The rest of us don't want to do anything but watch Vaughn run.