Bryan Harsin hiring Derek Mason last year to be Auburn’s defensive coordinator was as impressive as it was surprising.
Coaches often hire assistants with whom they have experience, and although Harsin and Mason had gotten to know each other through Nike events and coaching conventions over the years, they’d never worked together before the 2021 season. Mason considered a move to the NFL before Harsin persuaded him to join his inaugural Auburn coaching staff.
Harsin tapping Mason to lead AU’s defense wasn’t just a home-run hire. This was a grand slam.
Now, Mason is leaving Auburn, a source confirmed to the Montgomery Advertiser on Friday, and it's unclear where he's headed next. Harsin promoted linebackers coach Jeff Schmedding to replace Mason.
Mason became a hot item after Vanderbilt fired him in November 2020 amid his seventh season as coach. That Mason totaled just 27 victories at Vanderbilt said more about the difficulty of winning there than it did about Mason’s defensive acumen. He remains a bright defensive coach and reiterated that at Auburn, overseeing a unit that ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense and nearly fueled an upset over Alabama.
Auburn now will have two new coordinators among its four new assistants after finishing 6-7 in Harsin’s debut, concluding the season on a five-game losing streak.
Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo in November. Like Mason, Bobo had never worked with Harsin before last season.
It should concern Auburn that Mason would leave without a promotion in hand and that he could potentially make a lateral move. At best, Mason’s departure is a stinging loss amid a critical reboot for Harsin. At worst, his exit points to instability within a program that suffered its first losing season since 2012.
Harsin came to Auburn after seven seasons at Boise State. He had no experience in the SEC, and he'd never coached east of the Mississippi River. Harsin balanced his outsider status by hiring Bobo and Mason, a pair of SEC veterans.
Replacing coordinators ranks among the first moves from the struggling coach playbook, and that Harsin is playing that card so soon into his tenure is a caution flag.
Auburn wasn’t even a month into the season before Harsin fired wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams. Bobo’s firing came next.
Something had to change with Auburn’s offense – the offense flopped despite possessing one of the league’s best running backs and a third-year starting quarterback – so Bobo’s exit was hardly surprising. But it meant cutting ties with a coach who boasts deep recruiting ties in Georgia.
Defensive line coach Nick Eason became the next to go, leaving for Clemson, his alma mater.
Mason’s exit becomes the most damaging for Auburn.
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Before coaching Vanderbilt, Mason garnered acclaim at Stanford for being one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators. The Cardinal ranked in the top 11 nationally for scoring defense in 2012 and ’13. Mason also earned a reputation throughout his career for being well liked by players.
Auburn’s defense collapsed after halftime in a loss to Mississippi State, but otherwise, the Tigers’ disappointing season can’t be pinned on the defense’s shoulders. To the contrary, the defense kept AU in games while its offense cratered. Four of the five opponents that beat Auburn during its losing streak scored 24 points or fewer.
Auburn executed a great defensive game plan in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers sacked Bryce Young seven times and limited the Alabama quarterback to one of his most modest performances in a Heisman Trophy-winning season.
“Their defense really played an outstanding game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the Crimson Tide survived 24-22 in four overtimes.
Auburn also kept Ole Miss’ star quarterback Matt Corral in check in a 31-20 victory – the Tigers’ most impressive win of the season.
Turnover among coordinators and assistants isn’t uncommon. The best programs endure, mostly unaffected by change. But for a coach trying to secure his footing, like Harsin, a coordinator as skilled as Mason can steady the waters. Yet, it takes a mature, confident coach to manage veterans like Bobo and Mason with a hands-off approach.
Harsin might mesh better with his new 32-year-old offensive coordinator Austin Davis.
Davis is a first-time coordinator who has never coached in college, but perhaps the former Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach will prove a wunderkind.
Harsin is plenty familiar with Schmedding, who was Harsin’s defensive coordinator during his last two seasons at Boise State.
But I believe this: Put Schmedding and Mason on the open market, and Mason would be in higher demand.
Whichever team hires Mason will land a high-caliber coach, while Auburn encounters a fork in the road amid what will be a defining offseason for Harsin’s tenure.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Auburn football: Derek Mason exit is concerning for Bryan Harsin tenure