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The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2022 -- No. 11: Derek Mason, Oklahoma State

The former Auburn defensive coordinator took a pay cut to push Oklahoma State over the hump in pursuit of a Big 12 title.

Who: Derek Mason, Oklahoma State

Title: Defensive coordinator

Previous stop: Auburn defensive coordinator (2021)

Why he's important: You don't see moves like this every year. Derek Mason was Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2021, and now he's Oklahoma State's. By my count, the last time an SEC coordinator took the same position at a Big 12 school came in 2008, when Will Muschamp left Auburn for Texas -- a different time in college athletics. Mason took a pay cut to do so. He left a 2-year deal at $1.5 million per to make $1.1 million at Oklahoma State, which is more than OSU paid Jim Knowles in 2021 ($800,000), and also less than the $1.3 million the school was willing to pay Knowles in 2022.

So, why?

Obviously, the answer here is that the vibe wasn't right between him and Bryan Harsin at Auburn. Here's the laundry-fresh answer Mason gave in his official hiring press release: "After meaningful discussions with Coach Gundy these past few weeks about his vision for the program, it became apparent that leading the defense for the Cowboys was the right fit for me."

In hiring Mason, Mike Gundy continues the action figure structure to his defensive staff: the body remains the same and the head is interchangeable. Mason is new, while the rest of the staff -- corners coach Tim Duffie (2013), safeties coach Dan Hammerschmidt (2014), linebackers coach Joe Bob Clements (2013) and defensive line coach Greg Richmond (2018) -- remains in place. To be fair, it was the same when Knowles arrived from Duke in 2018. The only change Mason made was moving Clements from defensive line to linebackers, thereby appointing himself a "walk-around" coordinator.

"I don't have to be the 'main guy,' the guy up in the front of the room. It's not about that. We can all get this moving in the right direction," Mason said this spring.

In Oklahoma State's case, the right direction is the direction in which the defense was already moving. After ranking 99th in yards per play as recently as 2018, the Cowboys were fifth in 2021. 

After all, the entire reason Mason is at Oklahoma State was because the Cowboys were really, really good on defense last year. If they weren't, Knowles would still be in Stillwater. Their ferocious front (four sacks and 8.36 TFLs per game, both first in FBS) earned Knowles the Ohio State job. Defensive end Collin Oliver (10.5 sacks) is back, as are seniors Brock Martin (nine sacks) and Tyler Lacy (9.5 TFLs).

Another yard on a single carry would've made them Big 12 champions, and they enter 2022 as the favorites to win the league. 

"We have a number of guys back that played a number of significant number of snaps in key games, so for the most part we just need to guide the ship in the right direction, don't confuse them, and let 'em go play," Mike Gundy said.

"We're running Oklahoma State's defense. We haven't changed that in 12 years. He's going to put his twist on it that makes him comfortable to call plays on game day."

Here's how Mason described his integration to the already existing system. 

PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: No. 15 Tim DeRutyer (Texas Tech); No. 14 Rob Sale (Florida); No. 13 Joe Gillespie (TCU); No. 12: Brennan Marion (Texas).

"Coach Knowles is a great coach," he said. "The system is a really good system. We've had to deconstruct our system and put it back together, not only for it to fit our players, but for me to work within the system. I don't think you can take anything anyone has done completely and just do what they've done, because I don't know the ins and outs of it. Once we pulled it apart, it took about a month and a half pulling it apart, and from the verbiage to how we solve things, I wanted to make it easier for players and coaches. So, 85% of what we do is still the same.

“There’s going to be some slants and some twists and turns in that deal, but what I can tell you is they’re having a good time because they understand it. I’m having a good time because at the end of the day we’re adding some variables that can make us very, very unique in this conference.”

Mason played cornerback at Northern Arizona in the early '90s, but was mainly an offensive coach through 2006. That's when he landed the assistant defensive backs job with the Minnesota Vikings, and has remained on defense ever since. He joined Jim Harbaugh's Stanford staff in 2010. That period, split between Harbaugh and David Shaw, was the golden era of Cardinal football, and Mason snagged the Vanderbilt job as a result. 

At age 52 and nearly 30 years into his career, this will mark "only" Mason's fourth season as a sole defensive coordinator, without a co-coordinator title. His reputation as one of the game's top defensive coordinators was hard earned but quickly won, and would be enhanced with a Big 12 title this fall.