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Oklahoma State hires Derek Mason: Pokes make splash move at defensive coordinator to replace Jim Knowles

Oklahoma State has hired former Auburn defensive coordinator Derek Mason to the same position, the school announced on Wednesday. Mason previously served as head coach at Vanderbilt and is considered one of the top defensive minds in the nation. He stepped down as Tigers defensive coordinator on Saturday after just one season. 

“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,” Mason said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the student-athletes, coaches and staff as they continue to build a winning culture of success, inclusion and integrity on and off the field.”

Auburn posted a disappointing 6-7 record in coach Bryan Harsin’s first season, but Mason’s defense was not to blame. It lost four games where the defense held opponents to 21 points or fewer in regulation, including a 24-22 quadruple-overtime loss to rival Alabama. The Tigers ranked No. 27 nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to 21.8 points per game. 

Mason now takes over an Oklahoma State defense that ranked top-five in defensive SP+ and held opponents to just 18.1 points per game. The Cowboys were one play away from winning the Big 12 championship, and finished 12-2 with a victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Mason replaces Jim Knowles, who left to become one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the nation at Ohio State

Prior to his eight-year stint in the SEC, Mason spent four years at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, including three seasons as associate head coach. He also coached defensive backs for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL

Here are some key takeaways from Mike Gundy’s key hire of Mason as the Pokes’ new defensive coordinator. 

Making a splash

Mason was one of the most sought-after coordinator names on the market after his time at Vanderbilt ended before landing at Auburn. Now, he becomes one of the biggest hires since Gundy arrived at Oklahoma State. 

Gundy has rarely made a big-name hire during his time in Stillwater. Knowles came to Oklahoma State from Duke. Previous defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer was promoted internally. Offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn was a longtime internal hire, while former offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich came from Division II Shippensburg. 

“Derek is a great addition to Oklahoma State football and to our culture,” Gundy said. “I’m looking forward to getting him over here and getting started as soon as possible.”

While Gundy has had tremendous success being a kingmaker, going out and poaching a big name shows how attractive the program is right now after reaching its first ever Big 12 Championship Game. More than anything, Gundy can offer stability and freedom. Those are attractive qualities. 

Image shift

When people think of Gundy and Oklahoma State, the image that comes to mind is high-flying offenses featuring stars like Dez Bryant and Tylan Wallace. However, the Cowboys quietly went through a transformation under Knowles to becoming a defense-first program. 

Over a four-game period, Oklahoma State held opponents to a combined 5.8 points per game, including a 23-0 shutout victory against Texas Tech. Oklahoma was the only program to clear 24 points in the regular season against the Cowboys, and it came in a loss. 

While key contributors like All-American linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez are off to the NFL, Mason has some retooling to do. However, Mason is well-positioned to build on OSU’s momentum. 

Warning signs at Auburn

Just one year into the Harsin experiment, things are already looking shaky. Losing a coordinator to a conference foe or to a school that can give them a significant raise is one thing, but Oklahoma State did not fit either of those criteria. 

Instead, Harsin heads into his first full offseason needing to find new answers on both sides of the ball. In addition to Mason’s departure, Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo after one season. The Tigers finished tied for last in the SEC West in 2021, and things are only going to get more difficult when Texas and Oklahoma enter the league. 

Harsin needs to get his next hires right, or the Tigers could quickly fall down the SEC pecking order. 

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